Lockdowns, business rollbacks threatened amid surging virus

The alarming surge in coronavirus cases in Europe and the U.S. is wiping out months of progress against the scourge on two continents, prompting new business restrictions, raising the threat of another round of large-scale lockdowns and sending a shudder through financial markets.

“We are deep in the second wave,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said today. “I think that this year’s Christmas will be a different Christmas.”

French President Emmanuel Macron was set to give a televised address as many French doctors urged another nationwide lockdown, with 58% of the country’s intensive care units now occupied by COVID-19 patients. Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed for a partial lockdown in Germany.

Countries such as Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria and Greece have closed or otherwise clamped down again on bars and restaurants and imposed other restrictions such as curfews and mandatory mask-wearing.

In the U.S., where practically every state is seeing a rise in cases, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker banned indoor dining and drinking in Chicago and limited the number of people gathering in one place.

“We can’t ignore what is happening around us, because without action, this could look worse than anything we saw in the spring,” he said.

The setback is especially dispiriting in Europe, which after a devastatingly lethal spring seemed to have beaten back the virus over the summer and was seen as an example of what the U.S. could accomplish if Americans would just stop their political infighting and listen to the scientists.

Stocks around the world tumbled on worries that fresh lockdowns and rollbacks of business will further drag down economies.

The S&P 500, Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq composite were all down in morning trading on Wall Street. Markets were dropping even more sharply in Europe, in anticipation of lockdowns in France and Germany.

The virus is blamed for more than 250,000 deaths in Europe and about 227,000 in the U.S., according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

More than 2 million new confirmed coronavirus cases have been reported globally in the past week, the World Health Organization said. That is the shortest time ever for such an increase. Forty-six percent of the new cases were reported in Europe.

Von der Leyen said Europe is being confronted with “two enemies.”

“We’re dealing with the coronavirus — the virus itself — and also corona fatigue,” she said. “That is, people are becoming more and more fed up with the preventive measures.”

In the U.S., more than 71,000 people a day are testing positive on average, up from 51,000 two weeks ago. Cases are on the rise in all but two states, Hawaii and Delaware, and deaths are climbing in 39 states, with an average of 805 people dying in the U.S. per day, up from 714 two weeks ago.

Deaths are also on the rise in Europe, with about a 35% spike from the previous week, the WHO said.

France reported 523 virus-related deaths in 24 hours Tuesday, the highest daily count since April.

Belgium, the Netherlands, most of Spain and the Czech Republic are seeing similarly high rates of infection.

In Germany, where cases have not risen as quickly as elsewhere in Europe, Merkel urged governors of the country’s 16 states to quickly agree a partial lockdown that could include further restrictions on public gatherings and the closing of bars and restaurants.

The plan has caused anguish in Germany’s hospitality industry, with thousands of owners staging a protest at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to demand more financial support from the government.

Economists said further restrictions need to be carefully calibrated to avoid dealing a second severe blow to businesses.

“A national lockdown, as we have seen in, ravages an economy and would add significant complications to the ongoing economic recovery,” said Fiona Cincotta, an analyst at online trading firm GAIN Capital.

But Thomas Gitzel, chief economist at Liechtenstein’s VP Bank Group, said a temporary lockdown could be less harmful than a prolonged slump in consumer spending from persistently high infection levels.

“One doesn’t need to be a virologist to conclude that, without further restrictions, the number of new daily infections will likely rise,” said Gitzel, adding that a short, strict lockdown could be effective. “The strict containment measures in March and April laid the ground for an economically successful summer.”

Italy on Tuesday registered nearly 22,000 newly confirmed infections in a single day, its highest total yet. The Lombardy and Campania regions have been hardest hit. The curfews and restrictions on restaurants, gyms, pools and theaters have prompted angry protests in some cities.

Even Sweden, which avoided a national lockdown and generally imposed far lighter measures than other European countries, is now urging people to avoid shopping centers and shops and stay away from public transportation.