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Greece Struggles to Contain COVID-19 Second Wave, Protocol Defiance

August 26, 2020

ATHENS – Unable to fully get people to obey health protocols and allowing in tourists to sve the economy brought down hard by COVID-19, Greece's New Democracy government is trying to hold down a second wave with a mix of measures and stepped-up enforcement.

Greek police said they conducted more than 50,000 inspections in one day, looking for people not wearing face masks or keeping a safe social distance, and of establishments required to close at midnight, and found 411 violations.

Another five violations were businesses that failed to ensure health protocols were being observed on their premises or defied the curfew with one, near the capital, fined 10,000 euros ($11,814.50) and closed three days, said Kathimerini.

Greeks returning from end of summer holidays mixed with tourists on ferries coming back from islands for spot tests of their temperature and other signs they might be infected as the number of visitors fell far short of hopes.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his epidemiological team were credited with holding down the number of cases and deaths with an early lockdown March 23 that was gradually lifted beginning May 4, seeing cases rise.

But it was August that proved the cruelest month, the number of cases more than doubling with reports many were not wearing masks in public spots such as supermarkets and crowding bars, with wild island parties on Mykonos.

Masks were made mandatory in more places and tighter restrictions imposed around the country, with the islands of Poros, Spetses and Antiparos locked for some days after cases soared there.

Maria Skopeliti, whose husband and son work on Mykonos opted for the voluntary coronavirus test in Piraeus when they returned from what was said to be a hotspot for the Coronavirus.

She estimated that more than two-thirds of people in Mykonos had been ignoring personal protective measures with no reports of bars or restaurants being closed for violations.

“Even though I was quite careful… you can’t be sure because it’s an island that lives to a different beat,” said the 57-year-old Skopeliti. “It’s logical because there are many young people, you can’t restrict them.”

As of Aug. 25, there were nearly 9,000 cases and 243 deaths in the country and 31 people still in Intensive Care Units (ICUs) on ventilators as the government said there would be twice a week TV briefings with advisories.

“Yes I’m worried, of course I’m worried, and we’ve rung the alarm bell,” Gkikas Magiorkinis, a University of Athens assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology, told the Associated Press. “That’s why we’re taking measures." including the generalized use of masks.

The measures appear to be working, Magiorkinis, who serves on a committee of scientists advising the Greek government, said during a news conference with more people obeying although cases jumped before rolling back slowly.

HOLD YOUR BREATH

“For now it seems that the dramatic increase of cases … has been limited,” he said, noting the spike in the first week of August was projected to lead to more than 400 new cases per day, which so far has not occurred although there was a record 284 on Aug. 23.

“The slowdown of this dramatic increase came relatively earlier than the natural development of a full second wave, and coincides with the taking of measures for the use of masks, and with the reinforced restrictions taken in areas with outbreaks,” Magiorkinis said.

The government beefed up public hospitals during the pandemic, with help from the Diaspora and benefactors who helped more than double the number of ventilators for a health system hit with big budget cuts during a near decade-long economic and austerity crisis.

Thousands of temporary health care workers were also hired and ICUs got more equipment, critical for holding down the death rate in a country with superior doctors but underfunded hospitals lacking necessary supplies.

Critics,  led by the major opposition Radical Left SYRIZA ousted by the Conservatives in July 7, 2019 snap elections, have accused the government of reopening to tourists without a coherent plan, a charge officials denied.

“Is tourism responsible for the increase in the number of cases in Greece? The answer is categorically no,” Civil Protection Deputy Minister Nikos Hardalias said although the government admitted it wasn't revealing the number of cases on islands as it wanted tourists to go there.

The main culprits, he said, were large private gatherings such as weddings and residents ignoring protective measures like social distancing as Mitsotakis retreated from a hard line to urging social responsibility.

Travelers arriving from abroad accounted for just 17% of new cases, Hardalias said, while 83% was domestic transmission, adding that 360,200 tests were carried out Aug. 23 on the nearly 3 million international arrivals between July 1 — when Greece opened its borders to tourists and 723 people tested positive.

Government spokesman Stelios Petsas insisted that Greece “was and continues to be at a better epidemiological level, compared to other countries,” the statistics bearing that out but Greece still on some countries list as unsafe.

Petsas also attributed the increase to people ignoring protective measures, and noted the average age of those testing positive had dropped to around 36, from just over 48 in March.

Authorities have been particularly alarmed by the summer party scene on the islands, involving both tourists and vacationing Greeks, especially the hedonist heaven of Mykonos where private villas were hosting parties to avoid police.

In one incident, police broke up a party where the nearly 500 guests reportedly included a couple from Spain that had been placed in a quarantine hotel after at least one of them tested positive for the virus on arrival.

What currently worries experts most is the virus spreading in facilities that house the most vulnerable people: retirement homes and hospitals.

Ominously, outbreaks have already been reported in two retirement homes and at two hospitals, all on the mainland. Extra measures have been imposed, including compulsory coronavirus tests for employees returning from vacation.

"There is an effort to reduce the risk,” Magiorkinis said. “We can’t eliminate it, but there is risk mitigation.”

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

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