Europe confronted its first major outbreak of the coronavirus as an eruption of more than 150 cases in Italy prompted officials on Sunday to lock down at least 10 towns, close schools in major cities and cancel sporting events and cultural touchstones, including the end of the Venice carnival.

The worrisome spike — from fewer than five known cases in Italy before Thursday — shattered the sense of safety and distance that much of the continent had felt in recent months even as the virus has infected more than 78,000 worldwide and killed more than 2,400, nearly all in China.

The perception of a rising threat was amplified on television channels, newspaper headlines and social media feeds across Europe, where leaders could face their greatest challenge since the 2015 migration crisis.

That surge of people into Europe radically altered the politics of the European Union and exposed its institutional weaknesses. This time, it is an invisible virus from abroad that has slipped past Europe’s borders and presents its bickering coalitions with a new potential emergency.

If the virus spreads, the fundamental principle of open borders within much of Europe — so central to the identity of the bloc — will undergo a stress test, as will the vaunted but strained European public health systems, especially in countries that have undergone austerity measures.

Already, a new nervousness has pervaded Europe.

In Italy’s Lombardy region, 10 towns were locked down after a cluster of cases suddenly emerged in Codogno, southeast of Milan.

Residents were supposed to leave or enter the towns only with special permission, affecting at least 50,000 people, and by Sunday night, police officers in surgical masks were waving down cars.

Austrian officials stopped a train en route from Italy to Austria and Germany to test passengers for the virus. The Austrian interior minister, Karl Nehammer, said the tests came back negative so the train got the “all clear.”

In France, the new health minister, Olivier Veran, stressed the country’s preparedness, saying it would significantly ramp up its testing.

“There is a problematic situation at the door, in Italy, that we are watching with great attention,” he said on Sunday, adding that a Europe-wide discussion between health ministers was in the works.


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