The further lifting of lockdown measures aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus coincided with an unusual May heat wave in Greece that sent temperatures hovering about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and people fleeing to beaches – but with social distancing where possible.
Organized public beaches along with private beach clubs – many charging people to use public beaches in a practice successive governments have long tolerated – reopened – providing 500 places for people to go to beat the heat.
But umbrellas were supposed to be kept 4-meters (13.12 feet) apart and people to be at least 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) away from each other with no explanation how that would be enforced on beaches often so crowded it’s hard not to rub elbows with someone.
The government issued strict guidelines for beach operation, with businesses facing fines of up 20,000 euros ($21,650) and a three-month closure for violations but none were initially reported and while swimming and chaise lounges were allowed, group sports were forbidden and canteens remained closed, leaving people thirsty if they didn’t bring drinks.
An employee disinfects sunbeds against coronavirus, at Alimos beach, near Athens, on Saturday, May 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)
The number of beachgoers must also be recorded and not exceed 40 people per 1,000 square metres (10,600 square feet) and each umbrella may have up to two sunbeds, except for families with minors.
Still, it was blessed relief for Greeks mostly trapped in their homes under a lockdown that began March 23 and started gradually being lifted in phases beginning May 4, with restaurants, bars and taverns due to open with outdoor seating only on May 25 and year-round hotels on June 1 as Greece hopes to save some kind of summer tourism season.
“Life! Freedom! A breath of fresh air,” a retired bank worker named Maria told the British newspaper The Guardian as she sat on a Athens beach with her friend Danae, soaking up the sun and outside air.
Danae. “Relief,” said Danae, sitting up and raising her arms to the sky. “At long last, a big psychological relief.” You could almost hear the opening bars of Here Comes The Sun.
They were 10 meters (32.8 feet) away from other bathers.
Behind them Zissimos Zissos, a town hall employee, guided a drone over the beach on a mission to detect congested danger zones, broadcasting the robotic message “we keep our distance, we respect public health,” the paper said.
“It shocks people but they do look up and move away,” he smiled, as municipal police and guards wended their way through reed umbrellas, urging beachgoers to respect the rules or risk being fined.
“It’s a venture into the unknown, a different world,” Giorgos Papanicolaou, the mayor of Glyfada, whose municipality runs the long stretch of public beach south of Athens’ city center added. “But it’s gone better than expected. Children are a bit more difficult to control but so far there haven’t been any penalties.”
The New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was credited with saving lives by bringing an early lockdown, guided by the advice of doctors and scientists and is cautiously allowing reopenings to keep the economy from crashing outright.
People enjoy the sea and the sun at an organized beach of Alimos suburb, near Athens, on Saturday, May 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis)
The opening of beaches was seen as a big test as to whether people would keep adhering to social distancing while free and unfettered outside and in places where there couldn’t be enough police or authorities to ensure they do.
Beach clubs that often draw near-hedonist like behavior also opened, without music, alcohol or sports facilities that might encourage social interaction and as people hanged sunbeds the equipment was disinfected.
“Everyone is watching Greece,” said Stelios Petsas, the government spokesman, announcing that private and public beaches could once again be accessed and enjoyed but with strict measures, to see how long they would last as COVID-19 slowly fades. For now.