While Dr. Anthony Fauci warns, the United States is "still knee-deep in the first wave" of the coronavirus pandemic,” Greece has handled the crisis as well as could be expected and is looking forward to summer tourists.
The world set a record for new coronavirus cases in 24 hours on July 10th, with 236,918 new cases, with the United States leading as the largest source of new infections. So far, Greece has managed to contain the coronavirus, with only 3,732 cases and 193 deaths compared to Spain with 300,988 cases and 28,403 deaths and Italy with 232,639 cases and 34,938 deaths.
This was not a given, considering Greece's elderly population and a weakened public health system following the 2008 economic crisis. Motivated to avoid the missteps of its neighbors, the country's pandemic response was coordinated and aggressive. After several months of lockdown and the virus contained, Greece has begun easing lockdown restrictions and planning for tourism.
"Greece is ready to welcome tourists this summer by putting their safety and their health as a number one priority," declared Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
So how is Greece putting tourist and citizen safety first? How will tourism play out this Summer in Greece? The traumatic images of Italy served as a warning to the world and its neighbor Greece. Greece acted quickly to reinforce social distancing measures. On March 10, before most of Europe, Greece closed its schools. Soon after, cafes, restaurants, gyms, bars, retail stores, and museums shut down. Only those going to or from their workplace, shopping for food or medicine, visiting a doctor, or walking their pet were allowed to leave their homes. Citizens were required to carry an I.D. or passport with them, with a form naming one of the approved reasons to be out. Nonessential travel was limited, and people who came from abroad faced a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Greece's remarkable ability to contain the spread of COVID-19 can be attributed to several factors: 1) politician's willingness to listen to scientists; 2) swift actions based on data and science; and 3) impressive citizen compliance – especially impressive for a country with limited resources, emerging from an economic crisis similar to the Great Depression.
With COVID cases remaining low, Greece began lifting restrictions in May, slowly reopening commercial services, shops, and archaeological sites and later removing travel restrictions to and from the Greek islands and across continental Greece. Bars, restaurants, and cafes soon resumed business. On June 15, museums, archaeological sites, amusement parks, and wellness buildings such as gyms welcomed back customers.
Reasonable restrictions continue through the Summer, with social distancing guidelines including limits to the number of customers in a given space and the mandatory use of masks in public transport and services. The plan for gradually lifting imposed restrictions includes monitoring and frequently reassessing using epidemiological data.
However, aside from public health measures, the COVID-19 pandemic is expected to cause an immense economic downturn that will surpass the 2008 crisis. Forecasts predict a 7.4 percent economic decline that will worsen if reopening triggers a second wave virus. Reopening Greece, and doing it in a responsible way is critical.
Tourism is a major contributor to the Greek economy, accounting for more than 20 percent of Greece's GDP. In 2019, tourism revenue was 19 billion euros, with some 33 million visitors. The lockdown has come at a high cost, and Greece is eager to start welcoming the world again.
"We are restarting the Greek Summer, Greek tourism. We are once again putting the country's most important production machine ahead," announced Tourism Minister Harry Theoharis. Government and epidemiologists are working together to reinvent safe tourism amid a global pandemic.
As of July 1, flights resumed to all Greek airports, excluding those severely affected by COVID-19, including the U.S., as per the European Union guidelines. The U.S. Embassy & Consulate in Greece has announced, "U.S. citizens residing in the United States are banned from entering Greece for nonessential travel, which includes tourism unless you have an E.U. passport." American Airlines announced it would resume direct flights to Greece on August 5th.
For those permitted to enter Greece, travelers must complete the Passenger Locator Form 24 before entering the country, providing their contact details. Targeted or random testing will take place. Passengers arriving from countries with high COVID-19 cases face more stringent screening procedures. All the passengers from a recent flight from Paris to Athens were screened for Covid at the airport and were issued a Q.R. code to be notified if they tested positive. They were asked to quarantine until receiving their results, and in the event of a positive test, a 14-day quarantine would be required.
Once in the country, tourists can expect ferries that travel at 50% capacity to follow social distancing guidelines, with everyone's temperature taken before boarding. Masks must be worn in all public transportation and shops, and restaurants and cafes must maintain distance between tables. Shops have maximum capacities that always allow 1.5 meters between customers and employees.
One of the main attractions is beaches, and Greece has also devised regulations to keep beaches safe with a maximum of 40 people per 1,000 square meters of beach with a minimum of 4 meters maintained between individual umbrellas. Beach bars may operate with take-away services.
Hotel rooms are thoroughly disinfected between stays. Hotels must either close the room for 24 or use a steamer for cleaning. Rental cars are thoroughly cleaned between customers.
"I am not interested in making Greece the number one destination in Europe. I am interested in making Greece the safest destination in Europe," said Mitsotakis. The country hopes to keep its citizens and travelers safe through its guidelines while allowing the tourism sector to reopen.
For now, Greece appears to be the safest location for tourism. If they become too relaxed, easing restrictions may result in a resurgence of new cases. However, if Greece is successful, its science-based approach and guidelines may be replicated around the world to promote safe tourism. If Greece can do this, it will give an updated meaning to the word ‘Philoxenia’.