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Italy reopens shops, bars and restaurants as 10-week lockdown eases

"We could wait for a vaccine, but we can’t afford it," the Italian prime minister said of the new easing of the lockdown.

Shops, restaurants and churches across Italy began opening their doors for the first time in weeks Monday as lockdown restrictions continued to ease in what was once the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe.

The restrictions were enforced March 9 to combat the skyrocketing death toll, which has grown to almost 32,000. But with the spread of the virus slowing, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said it was time to reopen the country to avoid further economic damage. Some Italians went back to work two weeks ago.

"We could wait for a vaccine, but we can’t afford it," he said during a news conference to announce the changes Saturday. "We have to accept [the risks], otherwise we will never be able to restart."

The lockdown has already come at a high price for the whole continent with the European Commission forecasting the economy will contract by as much as 7.5 percent this year.

But in Venice, locals are embracing their abnormally quiet city, still free from the usual crowds of tourists.

"Venice needed a break," Melissa Conn, director of the nonprofit art conservation group Save Venice, told NBC News. "Nobody wanted this to happen but ... now we've been forced to do it."

She added that the unexpected break could allow the city to rethink how heavy a role tourism plays in the economy, which has seen waves of protests by residents against the negative impacts of the sector.

Gondoliers in Venice wear protective face masks while they resume their service on the Grand Canal on Monday as Italy eases some more of the lockdown measures.Manuel Silvestri / Reuters

Beauty salons and bars are being allowed to open their doors on a phased basis across the country, as long as they follow government safety measures. If the virus spread remains minimal, the national government said sports centers and gyms can open May 25, while theaters and cinemas will be allowed to reopen in mid-June.

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People can also meet friends again, although distancing is encouraged and large gatherings remain prohibited. Wearing masks remains mandatory indoors and is recommended in crowded outdoor spaces.

Churches are also preparing for congregants to return. The Rev. Riccardo Giacon at Venice's Basilica dei Frari said worshippers will have to walk in six feet apart from one another and maintain that distance during mass with seats measured out and marked.

But U.S. soldiers based in the country will not be allowed the same freedoms just yet. Army officials said during a virtual conference on Friday that they are moving cautiously as restrictions are lifted in Italy to prevent a spike in new cases among personnel.

"It is my intent that once we open a service we don't have to close it again. So we will resume services and activities only when the conditions are right," Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier said. "We are going to be very careful and deliberate."

Schoolchildren wearing protective mouth masks and face shields attend a course in a classroom at Claude Debussy college in Angers, western France on Monday.Damien Meyer / AFP - Getty Images

Italy was among several European nations returning to something more like regular life.

Over the weekend, Parisians flocked to green spaces after French officials partially lifted lockdown measures last week. Many people could be seen playing sports, jogging and enjoying nature at the Bois de Boulogne park on the western edge of Paris on Saturday, one of the few green spaces allowed to reopen.

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Worshippers in Greece attended church services Sunday for the first time in two months after the country's ban on mass gatherings was eased.

Belgium, which has been one of the worst-hit countries with over 9,000 deaths among its population of 11.5 million, was also easing its lockdown Monday. Markets, museums and zoos were allowed to open again while schools were partially reopened.

Associated Press and Reuters contributed.