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Germany bans gatherings as Europe escalates coronavirus measures

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Germany banned gatherings of more than two people and Italy decreed a halt to almost all domestic travel, escalating Europe's restrictions to check the spread of the coronavirus.

While the German measures don't confine people to their homes, Chancellor Angela Merkel put herself in quarantine as a precaution after coming into contact with a doctor who tested positive for the virus. Merkel will work from home, her spokesman Steffen Seibert said.

Decisions by Merkel and other German leaders on Sunday move Europe's biggest economy a bit more toward drastic steps taken in Italy, the country with the most novel-coronavirus deaths worldwide. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned Britons that they'll face "tougher measures" if they don't heed calls to halt social gatherings and non-essential travel.

Before heading home from the Chancellery, Merkel said Germany's two-person rule won't apply to families and people sharing a home.

"No one wants to stand before the people and discuss such rules," she told reporters in Berlin. "We are in a really tough situation."

Italy, where the disease has killed almost 5,500 people, ordered people to stay in their municipalities except for "non-deferrable and proven business or health reasons or other urgent matters," according to the Health Ministry. The measure applies to all private and public transportation. However, Sunday's toll of 651 fatalities was lower than the day before.

"We all hope that this trend can be confirmed in the new few days," Angelo Borrelli, head of Italy's civil protection agency, told reporters. "But we must not lower our guard."

The Italian measures followed Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's decision late Saturday to temporarily halt all non-essential business activity in the country of 60 million people. Supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and post offices and other essential businesses will stay open, he said.

The latest source of concern is thousands of idled workers with roots in southern Italy who could head there and bring the disease with them. Vincenzo De Luca, governor of the Campania region that surrounds Naples, urged Conte in a phone call Sunday to take "drastic measures" to block such a flow of citizens, the regional government said on its website.

U.K. Sunday newspapers reported that people were still meeting in parks and making trips to coastal towns after the government last week ordered pubs and restaurants across the country to close.

"Some people are not making it easy for us because they are congregating in a way that helps spread the disease," Johnson said at a news conference on Sunday. "We need to think very carefully now about how we take steps to correct that."

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will seek parliamentary approval to extend a state of emergency to April 11 after almost 400 coronavirus deaths this weekend lifted the total to 1,720, the second-highest in Europe after Italy.

Merkel has been at odds with some of the Germany's 16 state governments about how best to contain the virus, which has infected almost 25,000 people and claimed more than 80 lives.

The chancellor is against a rigid lockdown, fearing that such a measure could backfire, and wants a more coordinated national approach on restrictions to public life. Most German states indicated they will implement the new rules, which include closing restaurants except for delivery and takeout.

Croatia called out the army after an earthquake on Sunday caused damage in Zagreb, the capital, potentially complicating the country's response to the coronavirus.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is seeking to extend a state of emergency indefinitely and threaten prison time for anyone found to be spreading false information about the virus. Those measures would require support from opposition lawmakers to pass.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.

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