Greece Coming Back from COVID-19, Bars, Restaurants, Islands Open

Αssociated Press

A restaurant waiter wearing a mask to reduce the spread of the coronavirus writes on a paper in Monastiraki district of Athens, on Monday, May 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

ATHENS - Shut down for 10 weeks to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus, bars and restaurants are open again in Greece, but with limited customers and health protocols, while domestic travel to islands resumed again with ferries operating at half capacity.

It was the first push for a tourism season that won't begin in earnest until July 1 and with hopes that international air traffic will start again in force, hotels opening in June and health authorities setting strict regulations for their operation.

Travel to the islands had been generally off-limits since a lockdown was imposed in late March to halt the spread of the coronavirus, with only goods suppliers and permanent residents allowed access.

A lockdown brought March 23 by the New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis worked to hold down the number of cases and with 172 deaths reported as of May 25, among the best records in the world for countries hardest hit.

Greece wants to get a leg up on neighboring countries competitive for tourists that are still struggling to deal with the pandemic because of delays in trying to deal with it, including Italy, Spain and Turkey but despite the reopening of restaurants many places were quiet.

Αssociated Press

Cafe owner Liza Meneretzi makes a coffee in her shop in Thissio district of Athens, on Monday, May 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

People are supposed to keep to social distancing requirements of at least 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) apart but that's widely being ignored in public places as well as in supermarkets and businesses where many staff aren't abiding by measures to wear masks and gloves.

Greeks were roaring to get out of their homes and began to do so on May 4 when the restrictions began gradually being lifted week by week and restaurant and bar owners - some already violating regulations by letting crowds gather on sidewalks to partake of their take-out food and drink - celebrated the reopening.

But establishments without outdoor seating remain closed and those with sidewalk or outdoor seating are supposed to push tables further apart and keep seats more distant too, essentially impossible in many places except on paper.

At the popular Bairaktaris restaurant in the tourist haven of Monastiraki Square in Athens, waiters and staff wearing purple face masks and some with plastic visors, sliced meat from the revolving gyros grill, arranged flowers on widely spaced tables and waited for customers, who remained cautious.

Owner Spiros Bairaktaris is carrying on a family business running for 140 years and has framed pictures on the wall of himself sitting next to supermodel Naomi Campbell, singer Cesaria Evora, and other past celebrity customers. He says he's optimistic about the season despite the slow start.

“This has never happened before,” he told the Associated Press. “We normally sit 100 in the inside area, now it'll be just 30. ... There won't be any bouzouki music or dancing until we get the all-clear from the doctors.

Αssociated Press

People drink coffee in Plaka district of Athens, on Monday, May 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

"But I think people from all over Europe will come here because we have a low death toll, thank God,” he said. His restaurant is in the heart of the city's busiest tourist stretch and the government is keen on getting people to come, citing the country's record over COVID-19.

Social distancing regulations and passenger limits have been imposed on ferries and at restaurants to ward off new infections.

State-run health services to combat the coronavirus are being expanded to the islands, with intensive care units being placed on five islands: Lesbos, Samos, Rhodes, Zakynthos, and Corfu, along with existing ICU facilities on the island of Crete.

Tourism is a vital part of the Greek economy, directly contributing more than 10% of the country's GDP as Greece struggles to emerge from years of financial crisis. More than 34 million visitors traveled to Greece last year, spending 18.2 billion euros ($19.5 billion), according to government data.

With a view of the Acropolis and padded lounge seating, it's usually hard for cafe goers to find a spot at Kayak, but midday on May 25 it was still largely empty.

“Eighty percent of our business is from tourism, and people in Greece are cautious, they fear they will lose their job,” owner Liza Meneretzi said. “I've been running the cafe for 30 years, and I've never seen anything like this. But I was born an optimist, so we'll see how things go.”

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)