The Latest: Belgium allows more shops to open next week

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— Russia’s minister of culture tests positive, 3rd cabinet member.

— Struggles in India, Brazil, US show virus fight far from won.

— China UN ambassador supports WHO project to help vulnerable countries.

— National state of mourning in Spain for coronavirus deaths.

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BRUSSELS — Belgian Prime minister Sophie Wilmes announced loosening of social distancing measures, allowing more shops to open next week and hosting friends or family members at home.

Wilmes says households can invite up to four people starting Sunday.

Working remotely “remains the norm” and most shops and businesses will be allowed to open next week. However, restaurants, bars and cultural venues will remain closed. Sporting competitions have been canceled until July 31.

Wearing a mask while running errands is recommended but won’t be mandatory.

Belgium, a country of 11.5 million, has more than 50,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and 8,339 deaths.

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ATHENS — A national teachers’ union in Greece had a three-hour work stoppage of online classes, saying the government’s effort to reopen high schools in the next two weeks has been poorly planned.

The union of secondary school teachers, OLME, wants to ensure schools reopen only if there’s enough protective material available for staff and students.

Union officials say more stoppages may be necessary if the protest demands were not addressed.

The Education Ministry plans to stagger classes after the reopening to avoid classroom crowding. The government says it has given priority to finding and fixing protective material shortages.

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MOSCOW — Russia’s minister of culture has tested positive for the coronavirus, the third Russian Cabinet member infected.

Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova has mild symptoms and is undergoing treatment at home, according to her office. The ministry says Lyubimova attends video calls with other officials.

Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and Construction minister Vladimir Yakushev were reported to have the virus last week.

It wasn’t clear if Russian President Vladimir Putin had met with any of the infect officials. Since early in the outbreak, the Russian leader has limited meetings and switched to daily video calls with officials.

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GENEVA — An ambassador to China says the government is not “allergic” to welcoming World Health Organization envoys to examine the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan at some point.

Chen Xu was asked about WHO assertions that the U.N. agency won’t send envoys to visit Wuhan until it receives an invitation from Beijing.

“First things first: The top priority for the time being is to focus on the fight against the pandemic,” Chen said. “We need the right focus and allocation of our resources.”

He added: “So it’s not we are allergic to any kind of investigations, inquiries or evaluations as long as it will be beneficial to the international efforts.”

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MILAN — Hundreds of Milan bar and restaurant owners placed an empty chair from their establishments in front of the Arco della Pace triumphal arch in a protest demanding fiscal measures to help during the lockdown.

Restaurants and bars will open for sit-down clients on June 1, but organizers say as many as 2,000 of the 7,000 establishments in the city may not make it that long. They are asking to have taxes lowered so they can survive the lack of revenue since restrictions were put in place Feb. 24. They’re also expecting a 70% revenue drop after opening due to spacing requirements.

Andrea Linguanti, the owner of four restaurants in the trendy Navigli neighborhood, says he’s received little aid from the government and hasn’t heard back after applying for bank loans.

None of his 48 employees has received short-term unemployment promised by the government.

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GENEVA — China’s ambassador to U.N. hopes the United States will have “second thoughts” about a Trump administration halt to funding for the World Health Organization.

Chen Xu also announced China’s support for a WHO initiative led by European countries and philanthropic groups like the Gates Foundation to expedite vaccines and COVID-19 treatment to developing countries.

The United States has not aligned with the “Access to COVID-19 Tools” (ACT) Accelerator that aims to help vulnerable countries gain equitable access to vaccines, diagnostics and treatment.

Chen Xu says the United States was “duty-bound” to keep up its WHO funding and offered support for WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

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LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson “bitterly” regrets the coronavirus epidemic raging in Britain’s nursing homes.

The U.K.’s confirmed death toll stands at 29,427, the highest in Europe. While the number of deaths in hospitals is falling, deaths in nursing homes have not shown the same decline.

Johnson told lawmakers in the House of Commons it was too early to make international comparisons of death tolls but conceded that “there will be a time to look at what decisions we took and whether we could have taken different decisions.”

Facing Parliament for the first time since recovering from COVID-19, Johnson confirmed he’ll announce a road map out of the country’s lockdown on Sunday, with some measures taking effect the next day. But he cautioned that any easing of restrictions would be gradual in order to avoid a second spike in coronavirus cases.

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BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia’s parliament is expected to vote to end an overnight curfew, an almost complete lockdown for people older than 65 and military patrols in towns and borders.

Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told the assembly lifting of the emergency measures is made possible after the rate of infections substantially decreased. Serbia has recorded more than 9,600 COVID-19 cases and 200 deaths.

Experts have warned a quick lifting of the nearly two-month lockdown measures and easing of other restrictions could trigger a second wave of infections.

Some European Union officials and Serbia’s opposition and rights groups have criticized President Aleksandar Vucic for sidelining parliament when introducing the state of emergency and allegedly assumed full power during the pandemic.

His opponents have banged pots and pans from their balconies each night in Belgrade and other cities. His supporters, mostly organized soccer fan groups, have staged rooftop counter-protests by lighting flares and chanting slogans against opposition leaders.

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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Mosques in Bosnia opened their doors amid a gradual rollback of a coronavirus shutdown that began nearly two months ago.

Bosnia’s official Islamic Community, which governs all Muslim religious affairs, allowed the return to the mosques for five daily prayers after livestreaming of weekly prayers and sermons.

Muslim worshippers, along with the rest of the population, must adhere to social-distancing measures and wear protective face masks in public.

Most small businesses, including hairdressers and beauty salons, in Bosnia reopened this week. However, schools, universities and large public venues in the country remain closed.

More than 36,500 have been tested for the coronavirus. There’s been 2,000 confirmed cases and 86 deaths.

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MADRID — Spanish Prime Minster Pedro Sánchez says his government will declare a national state of mourning for the more than 25,800 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic.

Sánchez is appearing before Spain’s Parliament on Wednesday to ask for a fourth two-week extension of the state of emergency that has allowed his government to apply a strict lockdown that has reined in a savage COVID-19 outbreak. It appears he will have the support despite losing the backing of the main opposition party.

Spanish health authorities reported 244 new deaths over the previous 24 hours on Wednesday, taking the toll of virus fatalities to 25,857.

The figures, which are in line with the overall slowdown of the outbreak in Spain, don’t include thousands more who have died in nursing homes before they could be tested.

Spain also reports that its total number of confirmed infections surpassed 253,000.

Sánchez said that he would specify when the national mourning will be held as the country emerges from a lockdown that has reduced the infection rate to under 1%. Some small shops slowly started to reopen this week.

“We have won a partial victory against the virus thanks to the sacrifice of all,” Sánchez said. “But raising the state of alarm now would be a complete error.”

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ROME — Pope Francis is calling for migrant farm workers to be treated with dignity, issuing an appeal as Italy weighs whether to legalize undocumented agricultural workers amid a shortage of seasonal farm labor due to the coronavirus emergency.

Francis said he had been struck by the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on migrant farm workers, who even before the pandemic lived hand-to-mouth with day jobs that paid 25 euro ($27). While migrants are not testing positive in great numbers, they have seen their precarious, off-the-books work dry up because of Italy’s lockdown.

Francis said Wednesday at the end of his general audience that migrant workers in Italy are “very harshly exploited.”

He said: “It is true that the current crisis affects everyone, but people’s dignity must always be respected. … May the crisis give us the opportunity to make the dignity of the person and of work the center of our concern.”

Farm lobby groups and some Italian ministers have warned that spring and summer harvests are at risk because Italy’s usual seasonal workers, many of whom live in Eastern Europe, are stuck at home because of virus travel restrictions.

Italy’s agriculture minister, from the center-left Italy of Values party, has proposed legalizing them, backed by the interior minister and minister for the south who also wants to legalize Italy’s army of foreign domestic workers who care for the elderly at home. But the majority 5-Star Movement is divided on the issue.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — The Indonesian government was expected to allow all commercial transportation operations for the public on Thursday.

This public transportation service had previously been closed in the areas who implemented the large-scale social restrictions and areas that are classified as the ‘red zone’ areas following the prohibition of returning home to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

“The plan of the operation will start on May 7. But it is restricted to people who want to return to their hometown,” Indonesian Transportation Minister Budi Karya Sumadi said on Wednesday.

According to Sumadi, there are several criteria for the passengers who are allowed to use transportation services, including people with essential business needs and the officers that are working on security and defense services.

The National Task Force for the Acceleration of COVID-19 Mitigation emphasized that passengers should follow health protocols, such as providing the health document from the clinics or hospitals, using a mask, applying physical distancing and showing the trip schedule with the departing and returning tickets.

The government reported over 12,000 virus cases with almost 900 deaths as of Wednesday. It says more than 2,300 people have recovered.

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JOHANNESBURG — The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Africa has shot up 42% in the week ending Tuesday, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

The number of cases is expected to surpass 50,000 later Wednesday, and the number of deaths could top 2,000. All but one of Africa’s 54 countries, tiny Lesotho, has reported virus cases.

The World Health Organization has warned that Africa could become the next epicenter of the pandemic. Severe shortages of testing kits mean the number of actual cases across the continent is unknown.

In Somalia, aid groups are warning that the number of virus cases is far higher than the 835 reported. The country has one of the world’s weakest health systems. Twelve African nations now have more than 1,000 confirmed cases.

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BRUSSELS — The European Union predicted Wednesday “a recession of historic proportions this year” due to the impact of the coronavirus with a drop in output of more than 7%, as it released its first official forecast of the damage the pandemic is inflicting on the bloc’s economy.

The 27-nation EU economy is predicted to contract by 7.5% this year, before growing by about 6% in 2021. The group of 19 nations using the euro as their currency will see a record decline of 7.75% this year, and grow by 6.25% in 2021, the European Commission said in its Spring economic forecast.

More than 1.1 million people have contracted the virus across Europe and over 137,000 have died, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Unclear outbreak data, low testing rates and the strain on health care systems mean the true scale of the pandemic is much greater.

How quickly things can change. On Feb. 13, the commission had predicted “a path of steady, moderate growth” this year and next of 1.2%. At that time, uncertainty over U.S. trade policy and a Brexit trade deal plus tensions in Latin America and the Middle East were the main threats.

The coronavirus outbreak in China was noted at the time as “a new downside risk” but the commission’s assumption less than three months ago was “that the outbreak peaks in the first quarter, with relatively limited global spillovers.”

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MOSCOW — Russia has reported more than 10,500 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, bringing the national total over 165,000, including about 1,500 deaths.

The country’s health officials have been reporting more than 10,000 new cases for the fourth day in a row. The caseload is likely to be much higher as not everyone is being tested, and many people infected with the virus don’t show any symptoms.

Russia has been in lockdown since late March, with the vast majority of regions requiring residents to stay at home and suspending operation of most businesses. Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin extended the lockdown till May 11.

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Follow AP news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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