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After Reprieve, COVID Strikes Mykonos Again, Aegean Islands Swamped

Αssociated Press

In this Tuesday, June 9, 2020 photo, visitors sit in bars in an area known as Little Venice on the Greek island of Mykonos. (AP Photo/Derek Gatopoulos)

Greece's Aegean islands were declared Deep Red danger spots for COVID-19 that''s washing over them, including the notorious party island of Mykonos where health restrictions had been lifted under pressure from businesses.

The New Democracy government had imposed a several-day night curfew and ban on music on Mykonos but after restaurant, bar and tavern owners screamed it was hurting them the bans were quickly removed.

That has seen cases jumping there and other islands, driven by the especially contagious Delta Variant, defiance of health measures and the government not requiring tourism workers – who make up 46 percent of the cases – to be vaccinated.

Tourists and others going to islands must show proof of vaccinations, a negative PCR test or a document showing they have recovered from the Coronavirus, indicating those infected got it on the islands from those not similarly protected.

That is another blow to the hopes for tourism coming back to levels half that in 2019, another record year, before the pandemic struck in 2020 and essentially was a lost year for the industry.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control’s COVID-19 map pushed the islands into a territory which likely means that Greece's hopes to get more tourists from the United Kingdom, Germany and Russia have evaporated.

Without explaining why the government isn't making vaccinations mandatory for tourism workers as it did for health care workers – and vowing to make islands oases of safety, Deputy Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias said the islands could face even more severe restrictions after laxity.

He told ANT1 GV that Mykonos and Ios are a step away from having the hammer brought down, not indicating whether any reluctance to do so immediately is economics and not health driven.

Hardalias said no island could act with “impunity,” although Mykonos has and others known for partying have gotten out of hand.

“We do’t want to demonize any island, nor are we targeting anyone, but it is not possible for them not to keep their distance and not to wear masks,” Hardalias noted, although they are, with no reports of penalties for doing so.

Any new restrictions would be similar to those imposed on Mykonos earlier, a curfew and music ban that would hit them in their biggest summer revenue month of August as the season is winding down.

“The situation requires caution; the virus is among us,” he said during a daily public briefing, reported Kathimerini. Other islands on a watch list include Zakyntos, Lefkada, Tinos, Santorini, Paros and Rhodes, he said, all seeing constant increases in cases.

He said it's the job of local authorities as well as tourists and visitors to the islands to follow health restrictions which have been widely shunned, photos showing massive crowds gathering next to each other in popular sports.

Taking no responsibility for easing the measures on Mykonos, he said the government was disappointed with the response but there were no reports if measures would now be enforced as he warned those ignoring them “are playing with the lives.

“And the bad thing is that some people are playing with the lives of others. And I do not know whether this is morally tolerable,” he said.

Cases across the rest of the country are jumping again during a brutal heatwave and the numbers of hospitalizations and those in public hospital intensive care units are up although deaths have kept falling.

The government's vaunted Eleftheria (Freedom) vaccination campaign has seen a little less than half the country's population being fully inoculated, far below the 70 percent mark health officials said is needed to beat back the pandemic.

CHEESE IT, THE COPS!

The British newspaper The Guardian said police units were being moved up to the heavily-hit islands to try to stop people from disobeying measures in a frantic bid to get the pandemic back under control to save the tourism season.

The paper and other media reports, including from Reuters, indicated the situation is getting almost out of control on the islands because people and businesses simply won't obey the rules and largely aren't being forced to.

“The Delta Variant has meant that every country is dealing with the fourth wave now and not as expected in November,” Tourism Minister Haris Theocharis told the Guardian.

“While hotels and family-type venues are implementing protocols diligently, there’s more congestion than we would like to see in bars, especially among the younger crowd ... so we are trying to ensure some balance is kept,” he said.

Another 186 police have been sent to Mykonos, compared to 56 in 2020 when there were next to no tourists on an island that depends on them for economic survival and where champagne can cost 1000 euros ($1190) a bottle.

An additional 30 policemen, backed up by security officials and undercover agents, were dispatched to Ios, the 11-mile-long Cycladic isle popular with younger tourists drawn to its bars, discos and rock clubs, the paper noted.

Infections have soared among the young, especially the 20-30 age group, the paper saying most have reported asymptomatic as cases in the country have passed 485,000 and almost 13,000 deaths registered.

Before the surge, Greece – one of the first countries to open its doors to visitors – was seeing a rising return of them, boosting hopes for a faster recovery even during the lingering pandemic.

Arrivals have soared by 130 percent over 2020 when there was a 75 percent drop as the Coronavirus spread and international air traffic all but ground to a halt and people afraid to travel.

“We have made up for some lost ground … around 140,000 visitors from the UK have flown in since 19 July. They are coming in in big numbers though there is still some way to go. Britain is an important market,” said Theoharis.

Citizens Protection minister Michalis Chrysochoidis warned that Ios is on the verge of a lockdown but didn't say how long it would last if businesses yelled about it and didn't want restrictions.

“There is now a visible danger that the island will be shut down,” he said after going there to look for himself.

“Fines have already been imposed on enterprises which don’t uphold the law and … police who are very active and combative are being dispatched to apply the law and ensure enforcement of measures,” he said.

Theocharis said Greece has promoted islands as “COVID-free” after a campaign to vaccinate the entire population of smaller islands, which didn't stretch to the larger ones where there are more unvaccinated workers.

“Smaller islands are fuller than bigger islands,” he said, but their populations were said to be fully vaccinated.

“We’re seeing a fourth wave but no wave at all in terms of hospitalizations and stress on the health system,” said Theocharis. “There is a shift in the pattern of the disease and that requires a shift in mindset as to how we respond to it,” he added.

Tourism brings in as much as 18-20 percent of Greece's annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 168.03 billion euros ($200.3 billion) and at its height employed almost one million people.

But estimates put this year's take from the industry at about 40 percent of the record 2019 which brought in an all-time high of 18 billion euros ($21.42 billion) as the country's biggest revenue engine.