Moscow to shut shops, schools as COVID-19 deaths soar
Moscow – Authorities in Moscow on Thursday announced plans to shut restaurants, cinemas and non-food stores and introduce other restrictions later this month, as Russia registered the highest daily numbers of new coronavirus infections and deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The government coronavirus task force reported 36,339 new confirmed infections and 1,036 deaths in the past 24 hours. That brought Russia’s death toll to 227,389, by far the highest in Europe. President Vladimir Putin has voiced consternation about vaccine hesitancy and sought to urge more to come forward for jabs.
Putin on Wednesday responded to rising contagion and deaths by ordering Russians to stay off work from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin followed up Thursday by introducing a slew of restrictions in the capital.
All non-food stores, gyms, cinemas and other entertainment venues in the Russian capital will be shut from Oct. 28 to Nov. 7. Restaurants and cafes will only be allowed to deliver takeaway orders, and schools and kindergartens will also be closed during that period.
Access to museums, theaters, concert halls and other venues will be limited to holders of digital codes proving vaccination or past illness, a practice that will also remain in place after Nov. 7 per the Cabinet’s advice.
Most state organizations and private businesses except for those operating key infrastructure and a few others will halt work in the 11-day period, the mayor added.
Earlier this week, Sobyanin said unvaccinated people over 60 will be required to stay home except for brief walks and open-air exercise. He also told businesses to keep at least a third of their employees working remotely for three months starting Oct. 25.
“The situation in Moscow is developing according to the worst-case scenario,” Sobyanin wrote on his blog, adding that the number of infections in the capital is nearing all-time highs.
Russia’s daily infections have been surging for weeks and coronavirus mortality numbers topped 1,000 for the first time over the weekend amid low vaccination rates, lax public attitudes toward taking precautions and the government’s reluctance to tighten restrictions. Only about 45 million Russians – roughly a third of its nearly 146 million people – are fully vaccinated.
Putin strongly urged Russians to get vaccinated, saying “why wait for the illness and its grave consequences?”
The Russian leader, who got the domestically developed Sputnik V vaccine earlier this year, said he was bewildered by vaccine hesitancy, even among his close friends, who told him they would get the shot after he does and then kept delaying it.
“I can’t understand what’s going on,” Putin said Wednesday. “We have a reliable and efficient vaccine. The vaccine really reduces the risks of illness, grave complications and death.”
Russia became the first country in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine in August 2020 and has plentiful supplies. But citizens have been hesitant to take up the jabs, and some have blamed the skepticism on conflicting signals from authorities.
While extolling Sputnik V and three other domestic vaccines, state-controlled media often criticized Western-made shots, a message that many saw as feeding doubts about vaccines in general.
The nonworking period, which includes a two-day state holiday, should help limit the spread by keeping people out of offices and off crowded public transportation. The government also urged local authorities to restrict access to restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues during the period.
Putin said that in some regions where the situation is the most threatening, the nonworking period could start as early as Saturday and be extended past Nov. 7.
The Kremlin has ruled out a nationwide lockdown like the one early in the pandemic that dealt a heavy blow to the economy and sapped Putin’s popularity. Authorities have instead allowed regional authorities to decide on local restrictions.
Many of Russia’s 85 regions already have restricted attendance at large public events and introduced digital codes proving vaccination or past illness for access to restaurants, theaters and other venues. Some have made vaccinations compulsory for certain public servants and people over 60.
But Moscow had avoided restrictions until now, with restaurants and movie theaters brimming with people, crowds swarming nightclubs and karaoke bars, and commuters widely ignoring mask mandates on public transportation even as ICUs have been filling quickly.
Authorities in the capital have avoided restrictive measures until now partly because Moscow’s health care system has more resources compared to other regions.
But Sobyanin said that tougher measures are now inevitable amid soaring infections and deaths.
“The experience shows that nonworking days are the most effective way to reduce contagion and deaths,” he said.