BEIJING – Spain let children go outside and play Sunday for the first time in six weeks as European countries methodically worked to ease their lockdowns and reopen their economies, while governors in the United States moved at differing speeds, some more aggressive, others more cautious.
Elsewhere around the world, China's state-run media said that hospitals in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the disaster, no longer have any COVID-19 patients, after a crisis in which the city recorded nearly 3,900 deaths. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson planned to be back at his desk Monday at 10 Downing St. after a bout with the coronavirus that put him in intensive care.
While governors in states like hard-hit New York and Michigan are keeping stay-at-home restrictions in place until at least mid-May, their counterparts in places such as Georgia, Oklahoma and Alaska are allowing certain businesses to reopen. And churches in Montana began holding in-person services again Sunday.
Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force coordinator, said each state is different. Still, she told NBC, social-distancing recommendations would “be with us through the summer to really ensure that we protect one another as we move through these phases.”
The official death toll from the virus topped 205,000 worldwide, with over 2.9 million reported infections, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, though the real figures are believed to be much higher, in part because of inadequate testing and differences in counting the dead.
Italy, Britain, Spain and France accounted for more than 20,000 deaths each, the U.S. for about 55,000.
Some encouraging signs were seen, as Italy recorded its lowest 24-hour number of deaths since mid-March, with 260, and New York state registered its fewest since late last month, with 367.
Seven weeks into Italy's strict lockdown, Premier Giuseppe Conte laid out a long-awaited timetable for getting back to normal, announcing that factories, construction sites and wholesale supply businesses can resume activity as soon as they put safety measures in place against the virus.
Conte also said that starting May 4, parks and gardens will reopen, funerals will be allowed, athletes can resume training, and people will be able to visit relatives living in the same region. If all goes well, stores and museums will open May 18, and restaurants, cafes and salons on June 1, he said.
But he warned that if people don't wear masks and obey other social-distancing rules, “the curve of contagion can rise again, it will go out of control, deaths will climb and we’ll have irreparable damage” to the economy. After Italian bishops complained that these latest rules didn't allow for public Masses, Conte's office said a plan for such worship would be released.
In Spain, where the crisis is also easing, the streets echoed again with children’s shrieks of joy and the clatter of bicycles after youngsters under 14 were allowed out of their homes with one parent for up to an hour of play.
“This is wonderful! I can’t believe it has been six weeks,” Susana Sabaté, a mother of 3-year-old twin boys, said in Barcelona. “Today when they saw the front door and we gave them their scooters, they were thrilled.”
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will present a detailed plan Tuesday for the “de-escalation” of Spain’s lockdown but said it would be cautious. His French counterpart will as well on the same day.
In the U.S., where President Donald Trump has repeatedly pushed to reopen the country for business and a split has opened among the states along often partisan lines. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, told “Fox News Sunday” that with hospitalizations dropping in his state, he will reopen churches and restaurant dining on Friday, with social-distancing guidelines in place.
“We believe it’s the time to have a measured reopening,” he said.
But Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, told ABC that her state is not ready and needs more robust testing, community tracing and a plan for isolating people who get sick.
“We’ve got to be nimble and we have to follow the science and be really smart about how we reengage," she said, “because no one — no one, even if you’re a protester or you’re the sitting governor or you’re on another side of the issue — we know that no one wants a second wave.”
In Montana, some churchgoers returned to Sunday services as a general stay-at-home order expired. At Christ the King Lutheran Church in Billings, every other pew was kept empty. Roughly 100 people streamed into St. Anthony Catholic Church in Laurel, where ushers tried to keep families separate from one another and hand sanitizer was available.
“It’s like being given life again,” said church member Jack Auzqui. He said being unable to attend had been spiritually difficult for him and his wife.
Georgia’s Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, in announcing the opening of several businesses last week, reiterated religious services were allowed as long as strict social-distancing protocols were followed. But leaders of various denominations said they would keep their buildings shuttered for now.
In a sign that it could get harder to enforce restrictions as the weather improves, a lingering heat wave in California lured people to beaches, rivers and trails Sunday, prompting warnings that defiance of stay-at-home orders could reverse progress. Most recreation areas are shuttered, but officials worried that those still open could draw people who will ignore the rules.
On the other side of the Atlantic, as Britain's prime minister returns to work, he faces calls for more clarity on when his government will ease the lockdown, now set to run until at least May 7.
Other European nations are further along in relaxing their restrictions. Germany allowed nonessential shops and other facilities to open last week, and Denmark has reopened schools for children up to fifth grade.
In China, Wuhan said all major construction projects have resumed as authorities push to restart factory production and other economic activity after a 2 1/2-month lockdown.
Wilson reported from Barcelona, Spain. Associated Press writer Matthew Brown in Laurel, Montana, and AP journalists around the world contributed to this report.