Greece on Lockdown: The Latest from Athens

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

And to think that only a few days ago people were walking around some of the lesser known ruins at the foot of the Acropolis, enjoying some early spring weather and taking photos in the clear Greek light! But the SMS from Civil Protection Greece that made cellphones across the country go beep on the night of March 22 confirmed that due to the global coronavirus pandemic the country is now essentially on lockdown, with a ramping up of restrictions that had already been put in place.

While like almost everywhere it's a situation that's unpredictable and evolving, here's a short rundown with a focus on the impact all this is having on daily life as well as travel. First off, as announced by Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, as of 6AM on Monday, March 23 the country has been placed on lockdown. For the most part, you can leave your home only if you're going to or from your workplace, to the supermarket or pharmacy or going to a doctor or walking a pet (or taking a short exercise). An SMS should be sent to 13033 or you should have a signed personal declaration on a piece of paper noting the reason for going out. Taking your national identity card or passport with you when going out is also mandatory.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the new measures in a televised address on March 22, 2020. The PM has shown resolve during the health crisis.

The backstory

I'm an American journalist formerly based in Tel Aviv but have been a frequent traveler to Greece since my first trip to Rhodes in the 1970s and am currently staying in Athens with a visa for non-Schengen citizens. My friends and colleagues are mainly in Greece and Israel, and most family on the East and West coasts of the United States.

When news started emerging of the coronavirus crisis it seemed like a classic case of something from "over there" so when a friend visiting from Turkey put on a face mask just to browse in the gift shop of the beautiful new Goulandris Museum she looked odder than that Miró on the third floor. But as things deteriorated in Italy and elsewhere, the gravity of the situation became more apparent. Pharmacies began posting notices saying that stocks of masks were already gone, and prepackaged hand sanitizer went next, though many pharmacies had already started making their own.

Unlike the rest of Greece, Athens is usually hopping with tourists even in springtime but of course it's no longer business as usual. The neighborhood where I'm staying is called Pagrati. It's home to the Panathenaic Stadium and normally the boulevard in front is busy and lined with tour buses but they're all gone now, and the iconic monument like every other in the country is closed. Daily life has been turned inside out and tourism, a major driver of the Greek economy, is already reeling.

Before the lockdown

Amid reports of new cases in the Athens region and northern Greece, school closures were announced on March 11. On March 13, alarmed by the speed of the outbreak in Italy and the escalating pandemic globally, the government decided against complacency and ordered all restaurants, including taverns, bars and cafes, to close, with exceptions for delivery service. Shopping malls, beauty salons and barber shops and archaeological sites were also included in the order. Supermarkets, bakeries, pharmacies, post offices, gas stations and banks were exempted but since the original order was made rigid measures have been introduced for social distancing at these establishments.

These new rules were followed by a ban on gatherings of more than ten people, and any business found in violation will be fined with individual offenders also risking arrest. But with the mandate to "Stay Home, Stay Safe" coming from on high people by and large recognize that a crisis situation warrants tough measures. Residents had already been advised to only leave their homes for essential reasons, mirroring the situation in various other locations around the world right now.

A street in the Pagrati neighborhood of Athens normally lined with sidewalk cafes is now mostly deserted.

Still, all of this has come as something of a shock to Greece which like most Mediterranean countries is very social and Athens is a big and usually pretty noisy city. Public transportation is still running but few people are taking it. The peripteros, or new kiosks that are a fixture of the urban landscape and that sell everything from cigarettes to snacks are open for the time being, but everyone is anxious, indoors is the place to be and older people especially are simply afraid to go out. Whether you call it a lockdown, shutdown or whatever it's Greece, like many places now, on ice.

Hotels and attractions

According to an announcement from Greece's Ministry of Tourism, starting from March 23 and in light of the pandemic virtually all "year-round" hotels in the country are to remain closed through the end of April. The reason for the wording is that many hotels around Greece and especially in popular holiday islands like Mykonos are only open seasonally anyway, with the tourist season in those places typically starting in April. But hotels in the capital and other Greek cities are typically open all year. The ministry further specified that three hotels may continue to operate in Athens during this period, as well as three in the northern city of Thessaloniki and one in each regional capital.

In addition to all museums, archaeological sites—including, notably, the Acropolis—and other culture venues being ordered shut at least until March 30, it appears from local reports that most parks and organized beaches are off limits too.

Flights and ferries

As of March 16, anyone entering Greece is subject to a 14-day quarantine—for Greeks returning from abroad that essentially means self-isolating at home. Foreigners will also be expected to self-isolate so it's expected that they will need to show they have a valid address for the duration. Furthermore, as of March 26 and up until April 30 virtually all international network flights on flag carrier Aegean will be suspended. A full suspension of flights to and from Greece is likely.

Cruise ships are currently not allowed to dock at Greek ports. Ferry service to the Greek islands continues, but not for tourists. On Friday March 20, the Minister of Maritime Affairs Ioannis Plakiotakis announced the new restrictions that basically mean ferries are for permanent residents of the islands only until further notice, as part of the government's Stay Home campaign noted above. This is also seen in the Greek press as a clampdown on Athenians trying to flee to their vacation homes on the islands because even in the best of times most islands are under-equipped to handle medical emergencies.

As part of the new raft of travel restrictions, island ferry service will be made available to permanent island residents only.

The state of affairs

If you are already in Greece as a tourist, regardless of nationality it's advisable that you try to change your ticket to fly home while there are still commercial options available. Check with your embassy for updates—for the latest advisories from the U.S. Embassy in Athens, click here.

As this scourge continues to wreak its havoc around the world normal life in Greece has simultaneously entered a deep freeze and swung into combat mode as the government makes a concerted effort to get people to stay home during the crisis. With restaurants and stores already closed, hotels mostly shuttered and flights dwindling tourism is already taking a big hit—I'm getting emojis from from colleagues in the hotel industry that aren't fit to print but that also pretty much sum up the present state of affairs. Sadder still is that after years of financial hardship in Greece this upcoming tourist season was looking particularly robust and the crisis has thrown any prospect of swift economic recovery into a tailspin. By and large Athenians and Greeks and recognize that a public health crisis takes precedence. But for the time being dreams of Greek summer (or spring) will have to take a back seat to #MenoumeSpiti...the Greek version of the biggest hashtag on the planet right now: #StayHome.

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