ATHENS – With a general opening on May 15 to tourists free of COVID-19, Greece allowed so-called organized beaches – often public beaches taken over by private groups who charge for use of equipment – on May 8.
That came as part of further easing of an already lenient lockdown, the New Democracy government putting its bets on an accelerating vaccination program to slow the pandemic, which is showing signs of working.
Cases, deaths and people on ventilators in public hospital Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are still high but those are attributed to people who refused to be vaccinated, especially the elderly and those with multiple or underlying conditions.
Sun loungers that people must pay for, even though they are often on public beaches, must be spaced apart but there was no word on how it's possible to enforce safe social distancing on packed beaches with people swimming.
Tourism accounts for 18-20 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 166.88 billion euros ($200.3 billion) but fell off a cliff as the pandemic raged in 2020 and the government doesn't want a repeat year.
“We’re pinning our hopes on tourism,” Nikos Venieris, who manages a sandy beach in the seafront suburb of Alimos, just outside the capital, Athens, told the news agency Reuters.
“We’re one of the places along the Athens Riviera … that receives many tourists so the number of visitors from abroad will play a big role in our finances,” he added, although the beaches are mainly populated by locals and Greeks.
Under current measures, beach managers like Venieris will have to place umbrellas at least four meters (13.12 feet), carry out regular disinfections and test beach bar employees and other staff for COVID-19.
Along with beaches, the government is moving to speed reopening of other areas and facilities to lure visitors who have proof of vaccination or a negative test for the Coronavirus to show they are safe.
Museums will reopen May 10 and inter-regional travel allowed for those with vaccinations or negative tests as well, and schools will start for those apart from high school seniors who had already returned.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said a combination of widespread testing, immunization, and the fact that many activities would take place outdoors gave authorities confidence that tourists would be able to visit safely.
For beach lovers in a country renowned for them, the focus was on the sun and and surf and getting away from the 15-month-long horror show that has brought terror and locked people inside for months at a time.
“We’ve been longing for this for six months now, because we’re winter swimmers and we’ve really missed it,” Spiros Linardos, a pensioner, reclining on a sun lounger at Alimos Beach told the news agency.