Danes halt virus restrictions; rest of Europe a patchwork

Denmark's Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, takes part in a coronavirus press conference, with Minister of Health Magnus Heunicke, left, and director of the National Board of Health Soeren Brostroem, right, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Wednesday Jan. 26, 2022. (Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Denmark took the European Union lead Tuesday by scrapping most pandemic restrictions as the Scandinavian country no longer considers COVID-19 “a socially critical disease.” European nations elsewhere had a patchwork of different approaches, with some relaxing virus measures while others tightened them. 

Officials say the reason for the Danish move is that while the omicron variant is surging in the country, it’s not placing a heavy burden on the health system and Denmark has a high vaccination rate.

Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told Danish radio it’s too early to know if virus restrictions ever have to make a comeback.

“I dare not say that it is a final goodbye to restrictions,” she said. “We do not know what will happen in the fall, whether there will be a new variant.” 

Denmark, a nation of 5.8 million, has in recent weeks seen more than 50,000 new cases a day but the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital intensive care units has dropped. 

Some other nations were moving in the same direction as Denmark. 

Last week, England lifted almost all domestic restrictions: masks are not mandatory anywhere, vaccine passes are not required for any venue and people are no longer advised to work from home. The only legal requirement is to self-isolate after a positive COVID test. 

Ireland has dropped most of its restrictions and the Netherlands also has been easing its lockdown, although Dutch bars and restaurants still have to close at 10 p.m.

France — which is still reporting the continent’s highest daily positive cases — plans on lifting some restrictions Wednesday, notably outdoor mask rules in Paris, a part-time work-from-home order and limits on crowd sizes. But face masks are still required indoor in many public places, nightclubs are closed and no eating or drinking is allowed in cinemas, stadiums or public transport. 

Finland will end its COVID-19 restrictions this month. On Monday, border controls between Finland and the other Schengen countries that form Europe’s ID check-free travel area, ended. Travelers coming from outside the EU will continue to face border controls at least until Feb. 14. 

In Serbia, there are hardly any controls, so the few rules in place — mandatory face masks in closed spaces, passes for bars, restaurants and nightclubs in the evening and only 500 people at events — don’t mean much. Nightclubs have been open all along. 

Italy, however, has been gradually tightening its health pass requirements during the omicron surge. As of Monday, Italy requires at least a negative test within the previous 48 hours to enter banks and post offices, and anyone over 50 who has not been vaccinated risks a one-time 100-euro ($112) fine. 

Austria has imposed a vaccine mandate that takes effect this month and Greece has ordered fines for people 60 and over who refuse to get vaccinated. Germany politicians, meanwhile, have opened a debate on whether to impose a national vaccination mandate.

The head of the Danish Health Authority, Søren Brostrøm, told Danish broadcaster TV2 that his attention was on the number of people in ICUs rather than on the number of infections. He said that number had “fallen and fallen and is incredibly low.” 

The most visible restriction disappearing is the wearing of face masks, which are no longer mandatory on public transportation and shops. Authorities only recommend mask use in hospitals, health care facilities and nursing homes.

Another restriction that no longer is required is the digital pass to enter nightclubs or eat indoors in restaurants.

Stefano Tandmark, a Copenhagen waiter, said bars and eateries can stay open now till 5 a.m. “We can dance and yeah, just be yourself again and don’t worry about if corona is gone or where it is at the moment.”

Still, many Danes took a cautious approach Monday, wearing face masks on public transport and in shops. Some noted that the omicron variant had led to staff shortages.

“There’s a lot of our employees who are sick without the restrictions being lifted, and it’s going to be even worse now,” said Ulla Vestergaard, 59-year-old social care worker.

Health authorities urged Danes to get tested regularly so the country can react quickly if necessary but also praised citizens for embracing vaccines. 

” A lot of people (in Denmark) have received two vaccination shots and a lot have received three doses as well, and many of those doses were provided in the fourth quarter of 2021,” Jens Lundgren, a professor of viral diseases at Copenhagen University Hospital told The Associated Press. 

More than 60% of Denmark’s population over age 12 have gotten a third vaccine shot.