ATHENS – Even before most of Greece’s businesses mostly closed down for five months in a quasi-lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 were due to reopen April 5 – excepting three hard-hit areas – people poured out onto the streets in beaches in anticipation, but as the pandemic worsened too.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ beleaguered New Democracy government, accused by critics of waffling about what to do and vacillating between tough and tender measures, is risking that letting people out in warmer weather will prevent gatherings that saw the Coronavirus spike.
Acknowledging “lockdown fatigue” that saw widespread defiance of health restrictions, the government said the decision to “partially decompress” was also a way to keep a teetering economy from falling further.
But public hospitals remain overwhelmed with cases, especially critically-ill patients on ventilators in Intensive Care Units (ICU’s) at near full capacity, the government also hoping an accelerating vaccination campaign will work.
Mitsotakis told Parliament, “Let’s get to Easter safe,” even as he’s asking people who wouldn’t obey mandatory measures to not become complacent and think life is back to normal.
In the runup to Easter on May 2, the government’s task force of doctors and scientists will keep monitoring epidemiological data and all eyes will be on beaches and public gathering areas to see if they are swarmed.
“If we see overcrowding, the restrictions may return,” said Mitsotakis, an approach rival parties and critics said would be like trying to put the genie back in the bottle and after a riot in one Athens neighborhood when police tried to fine people sitting outside 300 euros ($353,) drawing resistance.
Stores allowed to reopen will have to follow conditions that limit customers and with time limits or for online ordering and pickup outside in a return to an earlier click-and-collect method.
A key factor in whether the pseudo-lockdown will ease further will also be self-testings with free kits available once weekly at pharmacists beginning April 7 although pharmacists won’t perform them in stores.
But schools won’t open until at least April 12 as the government pulled back a plan to let them operate again after warnings from health officials that it wasn’t safe for students to gather there again.
Not allowed to open for now though are businesses and stores in and around the country's second-and-third largest cities of Thessaloniki in the north and Patra in the west because of especially high numbers of cases.
Thessaloniki has been a symbol of defiance of health measures with constant scenes of huge crowds flocking to the waterfront promenade without being stopped, worsening the pandemic there.
Retailers there as well as the region of Achaia demanded the government reverse its decision to let them also open, saying they face financial ruin, the same argument made by bars, restaurants and taverns still shut down.
“A negative impression is created when the government takes a sudden decision to delay the opening of stores for a week in a city that yesterday had 350 new cases, when simultaneously over 60 percent of new cases are recorded in the capital and the ICUs are at capacity, and yet stores will open there normally,” said the Federation of Professionals and Traders of the Thessaloniki Administrative Region states.
They essentially accused the government of hypocrisy in favoring Athens where the situation is just as bad although the area around the capital has half the country’s population and most of its economic activity.
“How can Athens open up when it is in the deep red epidemiologically speaking, but not Patras and Thessaloniki,” Kostas Zafeiropoulos, President of the Traders and Importers Group in Patras said to thebest.gr.
Desperate retailers, both in Patras and Thessaloniki, have threatened the government that they will simply ignore its decision and open their stores anyway as an “act of resistance,” said Kathimerini.
Meanwhile, university officials asked the Education Ministry to arrange vaccinations for all staff members although the program for now is limited to those over 65 and with multiple or underlying conditions after dozens of politicians jumped the line to be first for their safety.