ATHENS – Edging closer toward a full reopening, ferry service to islands resumed in Greece on May 25 with another lifting of COVID-19 Coronavirus restrictions, while bars and cafes opened with conditions, and measures were being put in place for tourism to start up.
Museums, galleries, entertainment and concert spaces remain closed, over the protests of artists who said they’re being shut out of work and relief measures, with the New Democracy government concentrating on letting hotels and the tourist sector begin.
Travel to the islands had been generally off-limits since a lockdown was imposed on March 23 to prevent the spread of the virus, with only goods suppliers and permanent residents allowed access.
But the country’s low infection rate during the pandemic prompted the government to start the holiday season three weeks earlier than the expected June 15 date, as other Mediterranean countries, including Italy, Spain and Turkey, are still struggling.
That could give Greece a head start on the summer season, a critical period for a sector that is the country’s biggest revenue driver and in 2019 saw 34 million visitors bring in 19.5 billion euros ($21.33 billion) to help speed a recovery from a near decade-long crisis.
As of May 25, Greece had 2,878 cases and 172 deaths in a country of 11 million people, on of the world’s best records in dealing with the pandemic, aided by the early and strict lockdown that kept people mostly in their homes.
Greece’s tourism rivals are still dealing with COVID-19. Italy has seen nearly 33,000 coronavirus patients die, Spain has had nearly 29,000 dead and Turkey has had 4,340 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
Social distancing regulations and passenger limits have been imposed on ferries and at restaurants to ward off new infections, limiting the number of passengers to 50 percent of capacity, 55 percent if cabins are used, and people required to be at least 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) apart where possible.
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.
Bars and restaurants and taverns will be limited to outdoor service and required to keep tables further apart with no explanation how that would work on sidewalks that had already been taken over before the virus hit.
Places that had been allowed to serve take-out food and beverages saw people congregate on sidewalks anyway, so many in some places that parties were going on, police not reacting to break them up.
The bars, restaurants and cafes have been shut down for 10 weeks and some owners said that period without revenue and health protocols limiting customers could mean they won’t make it anyway.
They have been relying on government 800-euro handouts ($870.53) to pay staff and partial subsidies in a 17.5 billion euro ($19.04 billion) program to prop up the economy during the dormant period.
Physical distancing means that businesses are not allowed to admit more than one person per square meter of their surface area and must maintain a distance of at least 70 centimeters (27.6 inches) between customers’ chairs, nearly impossible in some places.
The businesses were pressed to use touch-free payment methods with cash being a transmitter of the virus, and to provide hand sanitation stations with antiseptic gels, train staff on the proper use of gloves and masks, and disinfect surfaces frequently.
Since a gradual lifting of the lockdown began on May 4 there has been widespread violation of the social distancing regulations with large crowds gathering in public squares despite health authorities warning of the danger of a rebound and police unable to stop it.
Popular areas of Greece’s capital, such as downtown Psyrri and Varnava Square in the neighborhood Mets, and in the northern port city of Thessaloniki have been flooded with nightlife in scenes showing no regard for the regulations as people gathered.
(Material from the Associated Press was used in this report)