A Swiss Guard wearing a face mask stands guard by St. Peters Basilica in Vatican City.
A Swiss Guard wearing a face mask stands guard by St. Peters Basilica in Vatican City.
PIC: AFP

Europe reopened more widely on Monday, allowing people into the Acropolis in Athens, shops in Italy, markets and museums in Belgium, garden stores in Ireland and beer gardens in Bavaria while its leaders discussed how to salvage Europe's hallowed summer vacations.

As nations carved out a new normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization was holding its main annual meeting - conducted online this year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was among a handful of world leaders expected to address the two-day online gathering that comes amid high tensions between his nation, where the pandemic began, and the United States, the country hardest hit by the coronavirus.

New infections and deaths have slowed considerably in Europe, where some countries started easing lockdowns a month ago and even the harshest shutdowns - such as those in Italy and Spain - have loosened significantly.

Many nations are now preparing to open their borders next month, trying to sketch out the parameters for a highly unusual summer tourist season.

Germany's foreign minister, who was discussing the options Monday with colleagues from 10 largely southern European countries, cautioned that this year's holidays will be like no other. "Even if a summer vacation will be possible elsewhere in Europe, which I hope, one has to say that this vacation this year won't be like the ones we know from the past," Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told ZDF television. "The pandemic is still there and we must at least have safety precautions for the worst case that the figures get worse again." More than 4.7 million people worldwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year, and over 315,000 deaths have been reported, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Those figures are believed to understate the true dimensions of the pandemic because of limited testing, differences in counting the dead and concealment by some governments.

The US has reported almost 90,000 deaths and Europe has seen at least 160,000 dead.

Greece reopened the Acropolis in Athens and other ancient sites, along with high schools, shopping malls and mainland travel. Tourists were local, for the country still has a 14-day quarantine for arrivals, and travel to the Greek islands remains broadly restricted.

Paving stickers were used as markers to keep visitors apart outside the Acropolis.

Authorities are keen to reopen the vital tourism sector, following a warning by the EU Commission that Greece is likely to suffer the worst recession in the 27-nation European Union this year.

Greece's public beaches reopened over the weekend amid a heatwave with strict social distancing rules, but buses from Athens to the nearby coast were crowded.

In Belgium, more students returned to school, hairdressers began clipping locks again and museums and zoos opened their doors, all with strict reservation systems to avoid overcrowding. Hoping to make the most of the sunny weather, open-air markets started selling their plentiful spring fruits and vegetables.

Some stores reopened in Ireland but Health Minister Simon Harris said he's still nervous because the virus hasn't gone away.

He hoped that social distancing and other measures will make more normalcy possible.

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