Albania extends lockdown till end of coronavirus outbreak

TIRANA (Reuters) - Albanian schools, cafes, restaurants and other public venues will remain shut and restrictions on social and economic activity will stay in place till the end of the coronavirus outbreak, Health Minister Ogerta Manastirliu said on Wednesday.

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The order effectively extends a lockdown, in force since mid-March, that had been due to end on April 3.

The Health Ministry reported 16 new cases of coronavirus in the last 24 hours, bringing the total in the small Balkan nation of 2.8 million people to 259, though of those only 79 are in hospital and just four need assistance in breathing.

The death toll stands at 15.

“Our epidemiologists are working hard to track down the contacts of positive cases and break the infection’s transmission chain,” said health specialist Silva Bino.

More than half of the confirmed cases are in the capital Tirana and the average age of those who have died is 50, she added.

“The good news is that in the last 24 hours 15 patients have recovered, adding to a total of 67 people who have been cured from COVID-19,” Bino said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Albania has close economic ties with Italy, the worst affected nation in the world where the death toll from coronavirus now stands at 12,428. Some 400,000 Albanians live and work in Italy.

Albania has shut its borders to foreign nationals and has imposed a 16-hour curfew at home, increasing to 40 hours at weekends. Supermarkets, banks and other essential services are open only from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Pensioners must stay at home.

Authorities announced on Monday that only one person per household could now go out for one hour to buy food and medicines after registering with an app. The decision caused the website to crash, though it was working on Wednesday.

Police have fined more than 2,500 people for breaking the curfew or driving without authorization.

The coronavirus outbreak has hit Albania, one of Europe’s poorest countries, as it was starting to rebuild homes for 17,000 people that were destroyed in an earthquake on Nov. 26, 2019.

Albania expects economic growth to come in at 2% this year, half of its initial forecast.

Reporting by Benet Koleka; Editing by Gareth Jones