Greeks flocked to the seaside on Saturday when more than 500 beaches reopened, as the country sought to walk the fine line between protecting people from COVID-19 while reviving the tourism sector that many depend on for their livelihoods.
For many people, it was their first foray into a big public venue since Greece began easing its lockdown earlier this month, and it also coincided with the first heatwave of the year.
Sun-seekers were required to respect distancing rules, which even stipulated how far umbrellas must be kept apart. No more than 40 people were allowed per 1,000 square metres, while umbrella poles must be four metres apart – with canopies no closer than one metre, according to a government-issued manual, complete with diagram.
At Alimos, a popular beach just south of Athens, people queued up from early morning to nab their spot in the sunshine.
“This is the best thing for us elderly.. To come and relax a bit after being locked in,” said Yannis Tentomas, who is his 70s, as he settled down under an umbrella.
He said he was complying with distancing rules, adding: “Its like a gun to the head.”
At a neighbouring beach a drone buzzed over sun-loungers with their loudspeakers urging people to keep safe distances from each other.
The lifting of the lockdown comes as countries around Europe and the world look to ease restrictions imposed to curb the pandemic, and resurrect
Greece has reported a fraction of the COVID-19 cases of neighbouring countries – more than 2,800 infections with 160 deaths. From May 4, it began a phased-in easing of the lockdown that had been in place since mid-March.
The country of 11 million people is one of the most dependent in Europe on tourism, which generates about a fifth of its economic output.
Following the reopening of Greek beaches, people will be permitted to attend Church Mass from May 17, while archaeological sites, including the Acropolis, will reopen for visitors on May 18. From Monday, travel across mainland Greece and to Crete will be allowed, and from May 25 to the islands.
“This is a crucial turning point in our efforts and we must succeed,” said Nikos Hardalias, Greece’s civil protection minister.
Tourism officials say they hope to welcome back foreign holidaymakers in July.
Greece’s lockdown, plus the shutdown of much of the world, and most air travel, is likely to have a profound effect on a country only just starting to recover from a decade of financial turmoil and austerity.
Authorities expect anything between a 5% and 10% decline in economic output this year, before recouping lost ground in 2021.