Commuters arrive from regional trains at the Cardona railway station on May 4, 2020 in Milan.
Commuters arrive from regional trains at the Cardona railway station on May 4, 2020 in Milan.
PIC: AFP

Millions of people were allowed to return to work in Italy Monday as Europe's longest lockdown started to ease, while countries from Iceland to India took a patchwork of steps to loosen coronavirus restrictions. Businesses including hairdressers in Greece and restaurants in Lebanon were opening their doors under new conditions.

With pressure growing in many countries for more measures to restart the economy, politicians also were trying to boost funding for research into a vaccine for COVID-19. There are hopes that one could be available in months, but warnings that it could take much longer.

Italy, the first European country hit by the pandemic and a nation with one of the world's highest death tolls, started stirring after its two-month shutdown.

In all, 4.4 million Italians were able to return to work, and restrictions on movement eased.

Traffic in downtown Rome picked up, construction sites and manufacturing operations resumed, parks reopened and flower vendors returned to the Campo dei Fiori market for the first time since March 11.

"It's something that brings happiness and joy, and people have been missing that these days," vendor Stefano Fulvi said.

He doesn't expect to break even anytime soon, "but you have to take the risk at some point." But Europeans' new-found freedoms are limited as officials are wary of setting off a second wave of infections.

In Italy, mourners are able to attend funerals, but services are limited to 15 people and there is still no word on when Masses will resume.

Restaurants scrubbed their floors in preparation for take-out service, but sit-down service is several weeks away.

Southern Italy braced for the return of students and workers who were trapped in the hard-hit north when the lockdown took effect.

Some regional governors said they would require anyone arriving home to go into quarantine for two weeks.

"It's a new page that we must write together, with trust and responsibility," Premier Giuseppe Conte said in a message to Italians.

Belgium allowed some companies to open offices to employees, though remote work is still encouraged.

Like Italians, Greeks, Spaniards and many others in Europe, Belgians are being told to wear masks on public transport.

Italians still have to carry certifications explaining why they are out.

Greece, which began lifting its seven-week lockdown Monday, dropped a similar requirement for people to send an SMS or carry a self-written permit justifying being outdoors.

Greek hair salons and some stores such as those selling books and sports goods reopened, with strict hygiene and distancing measures.

Athens haidresser Konstantina Harisiadi had installed plexiglass barriers at reception and at manicure stations.

A new sign, "Silence is security," was meant to discourage chit-chat and limit the potential for virus transmission.

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