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March 15, 2020, 4:39 p.m. EDT

Coronavirus restrictions tighten in Europe; Italy sees ‘tsunami’ of new cases, deaths

Pubs close in Ireland; more countries close borders

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By Associated Press

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Even as authorities pleaded for people to stay home, Pope Francis visited St. Mary Major Basilica, near Rome’s central train station, to pray for the sick, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

The pontiff then walked to another church with a crucifix that in 1522 was carried in a procession during a plague afflicting Rome. In his prayer, Francis has ‘’invoked the end of the pandemia that has stricken Italy and the world, implored healing for the many sick, recalled the many victims of these days” and asked for consolation for their family and friends.

The Vatican said it would close all Holy Week ceremonies to the public with the start of Palm Sunday on April 5. It said that until April 12, when Easter Sunday is celebrated this year, all the general audiences on Wednesday and Francis’ Sunday noon prayer will be streamed.

Holy Week services usually draw tens of thousands to Rome but, with Italy at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, tourism has vanished.

Spain joined Italy on lockdown after the government declared a two-week state of emergency.

“From now, we enter into a new phase,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose wife has tested positive. “We won’t hesitate in doing what we need must to beat the virus. We are putting health first.”

In Barcelona, people who ventured out formed long lines to buy bread. Police patrolled parks and told people who were not walking their dogs to go home. The Las Ramblas promenade, the heart of the city and a tourist magnet, was eerily empty.

The state of emergency “is necessary to unify our efforts so we can all go in the same direction,” Mayor Ada Colau said.

For now, the number of cases is still rising steeply. Spain’s Health Ministry said the country has recorded 288 deaths, up from 136 on Saturday. The number of infections rose to 7,753 from 5,700.

The Netherlands ordered all schools, day-care centers, restaurants and bars to close until April 6. The new restrictions cover the country’s famed marijuana-selling “coffee shops” and sex clubs.

Elsewhere, Morocco suspended all international flights, and Turkey set aside quarantine beds for more than 10,000 people returning from Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

In China, where the virus was first detected in December, those arriving on overseas flights were routed to an exhibition center for initial checks before being shuttled to their homes or other quarantine locations.

Even as social life largely halted — the German capital of Berlin closed bars, cinemas and other facilities Saturday evening — some attempts at keeping up public life persisted.

France, which has 4,500 infections and 91 deaths, went ahead Sunday with nationwide elections to choose mayors and other local leaders despite a crackdown on gatherings. The government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures, with election organizers having to keep a 1-meter (3-foot) gap between people and provide soap or sanitizing gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines.

In Germany, which had reported nearly 3,800 cases and eight deaths, the state of Bavaria also held municipal elections, with poll workers wearing protective gloves. Germany is preparing to close its borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark on Monday, and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said people will no longer be allowed to enter or leave Germany without a valid reason.

Britain, which has not yet restricted everyday activities, said it plans to set out emergency powers this week, including potentially requiring people over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months and banning mass gatherings.

“We will do the right thing at the right time,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC. “We will publish the bill this week coming.”

With the virus having reached 25 of Africa’s 54 countries, sweeping restrictions were announced. Kenya is banning travelers from countries with infections and closing all schools for three weeks.

Senegal and Mauritania also are closing schools. Senegal also banned all public gatherings for a month, stopping cruise ships from docking and suspending Muslim and Christian pilgrimages.

Muslim authorities announced that Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, would be closed indefinitely, with prayers being held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Dalia Samhouri, a regional official with the World Health Organization, said both Iran and Egypt, two of the most populous countries in the Mideast, were likely underreporting cases because infected people can still show no visible symptoms. Iran says it has nearly 14,000 virus cases and 724 deaths, while Egypt has reported 110 cases, including two fatalities.

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