- COVID-19 cases have risen to March levels in many European countries, and new restrictions are being imposed.
- Experts say the fact Europeans usually take vacations in August and go to a handful of destinations is one factor for the spike.
- They also note that schools have reopened, and that also has an effect.
On March 31, with the still relatively new coronavirus shutting down much of Europe and forcing people to stay inside their homes, the number of reported daily new cases in France peaked at nearly 7,600.
That number gradually declined from then on. Over the spring and summer, social and economic activity in France and much of Europe gradually returned as people took new precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Then it started inching back up.
The new spike there echoes what’s been happening in Spain, the United Kingdom, and several other European nations in recent weeks.
In the United Kingdom, new lockdown restrictions are being implemented next week.
What’s happening in Europe — and why — shares many parallels with the continued spread of the new coronavirus in the United States.
Unlike the situation in March, though, what’s happening in Europe isn’t necessarily a sign of what’s going to happen in the United States in the coming weeks or months, experts say.
In some ways, they note, what’s happening overseas has already happened and is still happening here.
They note there are still plenty of lessons to take from the current European COVID-19 spike, including how people react to restrictions, how to travel safely, and how to reopen (or not reopen) schools.
A uniquely European cause
In March and April, the COVID-19 experience of European countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom was seen as a preview of what was coming in the United States.
Those countries were widely seen as about 2 weeks ahead of where the United States would be in terms of new reported cases and deaths.
That’s likely not quite the case anymore, as the virus continued to spread through much of the United States over the summer while it was relatively contained in much of Europe.
Part of the reason, experts say, is because the current spike in Europe seems to be driven by a uniquely European factor: August holidays.
With new COVID-19 cases ebbing, many European nations started reopening their borders in mid-June. Travelers began to fly south for vacation like they would on any nonpandemic-ravaged year.
But outbreaks bloomed in summer holiday destinations, such as the French Riviera, Greece, and Croatia.
And then those travelers flew back to their home countries, where the outbreaks had been relatively contained.
In August, Italian officials said 30 percent of new cases were due to people who contracted the virus abroad. In Germany, officials put the figure at nearly 40 percent.
Americans, of course, go on vacation, too, but not all at once in August, and to a lot more destinations. There are a few parallels, however.
“We don’t have something like August vacation here, where lots of people converge on one spot, aside from something like spring break at Daytona Beach or somewhere… And we’ve already done that,” said Jeffrey Shaman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University in New York who has been leading modeling projects over the past several months to project how the virus is likely to spread in the United States.
Shaman told Healthline that what we’re seeing in Europe “is a function of their August vacations and going down to the Mediterranean and comingling and not using face masks. That’s what got the virus going again.”
There were numerous reports from destinations like the French Riviera about crowded parties with minimal use of face masks.
The situation echoes what was seen in some places in the United States during Memorial Day weekend, when crowded, maskless parties were tied to outbreaks.
That led to pleas for more caution — and even to closed beaches and parks — on the Fourth of July and, most recently, Labor Day weekend.
Whether new outbreaks spring up due to Labor Day get-togethers or Americans’ summer vacation trips remains to be seen. But seeing the European experience as a direct preview of what will happen here appears to no longer hold up.
People are people
There isn’t anything uniquely European about a crowd of people not wearing the recommended face masks or keeping their distance from each other, though.
“It has struck me that Europe is going through something of a process similar to ours, dividing itself into two populations: the careful and the careless,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Healthline.
The origins of these philosophies may be a bit different in Europe, he notes, but no matter the exact reasons, “there are people there who want to get out and congregate and not wear masks, like there are here, and the virus is looking for those people.”
That concerns him because of the scenes of so many young people out and about on past holidays and weekends, after which younger people became a greater proportion of positive cases and hospitalizations.
In Europe, younger people are also accounting for a growing percentage in the current surge.
Following the guidance can help solve that — on either continent. Schaffner says that after Nashville put a mask mandate in place and curtailed hours bars could be open, the numbers improved.
But no matter the continent, there are going to be people who refuse or struggle to follow that guidance.
“Human beings are human beings,” Schaffner said, “and there are a substantial number of people in the European countries that would like to be carefree and careless rather than continuing to be careful — and it’s the same in the U.S.”
Impact of schools reopening
On both continents, schools are also reopening.
One thing that’s stood out from Europe’s reopening of schools, though, is European officials’ apparent confidence that the reopening won’t necessarily exacerbate the virus’s spread.
“If the appropriate safety measures are applied, the probability of transmission is negligible,” Spain’s health emergency chief Fernando Simon said in late August.
Andrea Ammon, head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, told EU lawmakers on Sept. 2 that the reopening of schools doesn’t necessarily pose a higher risk if physical distancing and handwashing are implemented.
She cited evidence from the spring that reopening then hadn’t been tied to a spike in cases.
“I don’t agree with them,” Shaman said of European officials’ confidence. “The evidence continues to be mixed.”
He says that reopening in Denmark and Finland appeared to go OK, while Israel and South Korea had bigger issues.
“What’s been happening mostly is that people who want to reopen schools will point to evidence that children have been nominally involved in the transmission cycle, and those who do can point to evidence” that they do play a role, Shaman said. “The evidence is fairly clear that they lie somewhere in between.”
But the evidence you can’t find, he says, is that children play absolutely zero role: “Even if they’re not as efficient at spreading it, you’re creating opportunities for transmission.”
Hopefully, mitigation attempts via increased ventilation, limiting class sizes, face masks, and physical distancing have some effect, but it still depends on well you do it, Shaman says.
“Reopening schools is not going to benefit you in terms of the virus. It can only hurt there,” he said, though he noted there are many other benefits for both kids and parents.
“So, it’s not an easy issue regardless, but when I hear European leaders say it’s not going to be a problem, I’m just waiting for situations where they’re going to have flare-ups — I’m not saying they’re going to have lots, but there’s going to be some,” Shaman said.
Schaffner says the key thing is how much the virus is prevalent in the surrounding community.
In Europe, he said, “until recently, rates of COVID transmission in those communities was pretty low — that’s going to the be the single most important determinant in what happens here, in terms of how schools reopening affect the spread.”