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Fri. 8:46 a.m.: Virus spiking in eastern Europe; Hungary drafts ‘war plan’

Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, right, is greeting his counterpart from Hungary, Viktor Orban, left, at the start of the Visegrad Group premiers' meeting today in Lublin, Poland. In preparation for European Union summit this month, the meeting is to discuss situation in Belarus, ties with Russia and fighting COVID-19. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases spiked today in parts of eastern Europe, with Hungary and the Czech Republic registering all-time daily highs.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his government was drafting a “war plan” to defend against the second wave of the pandemic. The plan’s aim was “not for everyone to stay at home and bring the country to a halt … but to defend Hungary’s functionality,” Orban said.

The prime minister said measures meant to protect the economy and spur growth would be introduced in the coming weeks. In the second quarter of the year, Hungary’s gross domestic product fell 13.6 percent, the worst drop in the region.

Orban reiterated the need to protect the elderly, one of the group’s most at-risk during the pandemic, and authorities have banned most visits to retirement homes and hospitals to stem the spread of the virus.

Wearing masks or other face coverings is mandatory on public transportation, in stores and in many public institutions. In Budapest, Hungary’s capital city, people not wearing a mask on public transit or wearing one can be fined 8,000 forints ($26.50).

While Hungary closed its borders to foreigners on Sept. 1, it has since announced several exemptions, including for people arriving from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the three other members of Europe’s Visegrad Group, or V4.

“I believe that in the cross-European troubles, we can create a safe Central European island, within which and applying particular rules, movement and the possibility of a common life with the Slovaks, Czechs and Poles can survive,” Orban said.

Hungary reported 718 virus cases today, 142 more than the country’s previous 24-hour record. The Czech Republic reported 1,382 cases, which was over 200 more than its previous daily high and led to the return of face masks being mandatory in enclosed public spaces.

Poland also registered an increase in new confirmed cases, with 594 reported today. While that was well below the record 903 cases the country recorded Aug. 21, it was higher than the 400-500 new cases of the previous days.

One possible reason for Poland’s overall decline in reported cases since last month is that the government has implemented a new strategy which focuses primarily on testing symptomatic patients. People quarantined after contact with an infected person, however, will no longer need to be tested.

Like Hungary, Portugal has been put back on Britain’s quarantine list, meaning that starting Saturday people traveling from the southern European country’s mainland to Britain must remain quarantined for 14 days after their arrival.

The Portuguese president criticized the rule, saying it punished his country’s tourism-dependent regions.

“We have a certain feeling of unfairness because we don’t close our doors to entries,” Portuguese public broadcaster RTP reported President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa saying late Thursday. “There are other countries that have much more difficult and complicated situations.”

In Spain, the top coronavirus expert saw the country’s rate of new infections easing and “possibly” reaching a plateau after weeks of sharp increases that brought restrictions across the country.

Today, Spain’s Health Ministry reported 4,137 new infections in 24 hours, taking the total tally in the pandemic to over 550,000, the highest in Europe. The country’s official death toll reached 26,699 on Thursday.

“In recent days, there is a slowdown in this increase and we are possibly seeing a stabilization,” Dr. Fernando Simón, who heads Spain’s health emergency coordination center, said. “We are starting to ease the rhythm (of the increase).”

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