ATHENS – To the relief of people mostly penned up in their homes for six weeks when a lockdown aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID-19 Coronavirus began on March 23, restrictions keep being lifted in a hope to return to some semblance of normality.
With the lockdown having worked to hold down the number of cases and deaths – 2,850 and 166 – by May 21, Prime Minister and New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis started easing measures on May 4 and every week since has continued to do so.
The third wave on May 18 saw travel allowed between different regions on mainland Greece and the first ferry services to Crete with services to other islands conditionally set for May 25 unless there's a resurgence of the virus.
Intercity buses and train services resumed as well, allegedly with social distancing supposed to limit the number of passengers but with some buses operating in Athens showing signs of being packed.
Parks, zoos and archaeological sites opened and there will be a gradual resumption of domestic flights, which had until now been operating in limited numbers while on ferries there will be a limit halving the number of passengers, or 55 percent if cabins are available, said Kathimerini.
Before boarding, passengers were supposed to have their temperatures taken while they will also be required to complete a so-called “health status” questionnaire and while on board are supposed to be at least 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) from each other with no explanation how that could be enforced, and indications it was widely violated.
Only one person was to be allowed in each ferry cabin, except in the case of disabled people and their helpers or families comprising spouses or first-degree relatives in which case four will be allowed, the report said.
The use of masks by passengers and crew members is mandatory. There must also be an empty sea between each passenger while passengers suspected of infection will be isolated in a special area on the ship and put off at the next port where there is a health facility that can handle them.
But a ban on passenger flights to and from Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands was extended until May 31, as well as for non-European Union citizens, and to June 14 for flights to and from Albania and North Macedonia, but tourism set to start the next day, limited to 15 countries with good records in dealing with the pandemic.
The lockdown began before a single death and was credited with holding down the number or cases and fatalities, making Greece among the best performers in the world in handling the virus and its effects.
Still hoping to salvage a summer season Mitsotakis set a target date of July 1 for tourism to start, depending on whether there's any resurgence of the virus and how other countries deal with the easing of the pandemic, Mitsotakis having said while Greece will have strict health protocols that visitors should be checked before departures.
Speaking to some 500 executives and analysts of the Boston Consulting Group, via teleconference, Mitsotakis said the challenge for the tourism sector in Greece during the current, pandemic-battered year, is to acquire a bigger share of a much smaller "market pie” this year, said Kathimerini.
He also promised that a privatization program will go on and said there's more than ever a need for more investment in a "green economy" although critics said his New Democracy government wants to allow more development.
Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said letting 500 organized beaches to reopen May 16 when a heatwave brought temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit before subsiding was an “important test” as to whether social distancing requirements will be followed.
“Everyone is watching Greece because, so far, it has shown an exemplary response to the pandemic. Now we are called upon to demonstrate that, with rules and maturity, we can enjoy the beauty of our country safely during this summer,” he said.
This will be the best way to restarting domestic, but also foreign tourism, he added as beach clubs that violate the requirements to keep umbrellas and chaise lounges at least four meters (13.12 feet) apart will face heavy fines and could be closed.
Tourism is the country's biggest revenue engine and brings in as much as 18-20 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of 185.29 billion euros ($200.3 billion,) needed more than ever this year.
Archaeological sites, including the Acropolis, have opened as well and after a rocky start when crowds of young people mobbed a few public areas, most Greeks and others living in the country have tried to return to a normal life although fewer appear to be using masks and gloves and keeping distances from each other.
Restaurants, taverns and bars in the next liftings will be seen as a crucial test as well as they will for now be limited to outdoor seating with tables farther apart and fewer customers allowed, the owners saying that will make it difficult for them to recoup losses.
There was no word on how policing social distancing would work in the most crowded tourist and shopping areas such as Plaka, Monastiraki or the main shopping avenue of Ermou Street and the main Syntagma Square, the hub of the capital's metro system.