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Poland reopens green spaces but unclear on election amid epidemic

WARSAW (Reuters) - Poles will have to cover their noses and mouths in public until a coronavirus vaccine is found, the health minister said on Thursday, as the government eased a few of the restrictions that have brought daily life to a virtual standstill.

While the reopening of parks and forests from April 20 will be welcomed by those stuck in lockdown, many restrictions look set to continue into May, when a presidential election is due.

“These steps ... do not mean the epidemic is over,” Health Minister Lukasz Szumowski said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. “We are going to have to learn to live with the epidemic for ... a long time.”

A requirement to cover noses and mouths in public came into effect on Thursday.

In addition to reopening green spaces, Morawiecki said limits on the numbers of people in shops would be eased. He said he planned to ease the lockdown further every week or two.

But the prospect of many restrictions continuing into May, as the number of infections and deaths rose to 7,918 and 314 respectively, added to confusion over whether the election can go ahead on May 10.

Members of the governing coalition sought opposition support for a two-year extension of President Andrzej Duda’s term because of the difficulty of voting under lockdown.

The ruling conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) had advocated a postal ballot, but on Wednesday unexpectedly presented a bill to keep Duda in office for now.

As a constitutional change, this would require opposition backing to secure the necessary two-thirds approval.

Junior coalition partner Accord had lobbied for the change.

“We are going to persuade all lawmakers that the historical moment and the huge scale of responsibility held by politicians ... requires us to rise above individual interests,” Accord’s Jaroslaw Gowin told reporters.

But Jan Grabiec of the opposition centrist Civic Platform said Duda could be kept on without such a drastic measure.

“We believe that in the constitution there are (already) means of postponing the elections,” he said. “A state of emergency extends the president’s term.”

Earlier, parliament voted to kick a citizens’ bill proposing a toughening of already tight rules on abortion down the road by passing it to a parliamentary commission.

Although religious conservatives are a pillar of PiS support, the issue is highly divisive, and PiS had been nervous about throwing its full weight behind the bill just before an election made more unpredictable by the epidemic.

The bill would ban abortion in one of the few permitted instances - where prenatal tests show serious, irreversible damage to the foetus.

Rights campaigners - who were outraged at the prospect of the bill being passed at a time when the lockdown has made mass protests impossible - say it would eliminate 98% of the small number of abortions carried out in Poland.

Reporting by Agnieszka Barteczko, Pawel Florkiewicz, Anna Koper and Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, writing by Alan Charlish; Editing by Kevin Liffey