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Sweden Bans Groups Larger Than 50 In Its First Major Coronavirus Crackdown

People gathered on a square in central Stockholm on Thursday.
People gathered on a square in central Stockholm on Thursday.

Sweden's prime minister announced Friday that public gatherings of more than 50 people will be banned as of Sunday, with violators subject to fines or even imprisonment.

The ban is much tighter than the country's previous restriction on groups over 500, but looser than limits imposed elsewhere in Europe. It amounts to a major crackdown in a country that has otherwise become known for its lenient approach to coronavirus management.

While neighboring Denmark was one of the first European countries after Italy to announce it would close all public schools and daycare centers, Sweden's institutions remain open. The country also hasn't followed its Scandinavian neighbors' lead in shutting down bars, restaurants, sports practices or national borders.

Instead, the country's Public Health Agency has issued a series of recommendations. Anyone with symptoms, as well as those over 70, are advised to stay home. People who are able to work from home are encouraged to do so, and authorities recommend against unnecessary travel both inside and outside the country.

Despite the travel warnings, night trains with shared compartments will reportedly run as usual to popular ski areas during the upcoming Easter holiday.

In the last few days, neighboring Scandinavians have been shocked by reports of massive after-ski parties in Sweden, even as entire mountains in Norway are closed. The ski-related anxiety may be related to the fact that Denmark's first coronavirus cases were linked to ski holidays to Italy.

Amid some mounting criticism, Sweden's state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell — who has become the face of his country's steel-bellied approach — insists that the strategy is working, and that Sweden is flattening the curve.

As of Friday, Sweden had more than 3,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 92 deaths. Meanwhile, Denmark, with about half the population, had 2,010 cases and 52 deaths. A large number of cases in both countries is believed to be invisible due to limited testing.

Tegnell does not rule out the need for additional future mandates to limit the spread of coronavirus in his country. He has suggested that neighboring countries' restrictions are often politically rather than scientifically driven.

That was the case in Denmark's decision to close its borders. Shortly after closure was announced, the director of the Danish Health Authority openly acknowledged that there was little evidence to suggest that closing borders slows the spread of disease. He said it was a decision made by politicians.

The assumption — and hope — in the highly trusting country of Sweden is that people will do the right thing and follow the government's recommendations.

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven said as much as he closed out his press conference on Friday: "All of us as individuals must take responsibility. We cannot legislate and ban everything. It's about common sense."

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