A waiter wears a protective face mask serves customers in a bar, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, Aug. 1, 2020.
A waiter wears a protective face mask serves customers in a bar, amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, Aug. 1, 2020.

ATHENS - Greece has recorded its biggest spike in COVID-19 infections since emerging from a nationwide lockdown three months ago. The country’s virus-free status – relative to others in Europe - has largely faded since allowing tourists to visit again. But now authorities are largely blaming young Greeks for the dramatic rise in infections, accusing them of socializing recklessly and not acting responsibly. Officials fear Greece is just weeks away from living a nightmarish contagion much like that already seen in Italy earlier this year.

For a country that until recently had only about 3,000 COVID-19 infections, Tuesday’s single-day count of 121 new cases set off alarm bells.

It also forced Sotiris Tsiodras, an infectious diseases expert and the head of the Greek government’s medical response team, to return to the public podium, issuing a stark warning 70 days after Greece claimed it had successfully flattened its coronavirus curve.

The situation now, he said, is dangerous and Greeks have to understand the severity of it because the fate of this flare-up ultimately hinges on them.

If people behave as they should, Tsiodras said, then they can once again quash the curve. But if they do not, then this can easily and quickly turn into what he described as an Italy-like calamity.

COVID-19 infections have been climbing since tourists began trickling back into this sun-drenched country in early June.

But as Greeks too have started seeking summer retreat, they also have been loosening up in their compliance with social distancing rules, refusing to wear masks at beach bars, restaurants and social gatherings.

Passengers wait to board a ship bound to Greek Aegean islands at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, Aug. 1, 2020. Authorities introduced tougher restrictions this week following an increase in infections.

Home-grown cases have overtaken foreign ones.

State statistics released Wednesday suggested only 10 percent of Greece’s COVID-19 cases are linked to tourism.

To stem the spread, authorities have introduced a new list of measures, including a cap on large weddings and celebrations that officials say have contributed to the dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases here. They have also implemented tighter border controls - mainly from Albania where the pandemic shows no signs of abating.

But reining in Greece’s beach-partying youth is proving more difficult. Greek Civil Protection Minister Nikos Hardalias is now calling on people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s to socialize responsibly, not recklessly.

He said that as a father he appeals to the youth to step up to the plate and take the lead in protecting Greece and what it has managed to achieve these past few months in keeping itself clear of the virus.

The youth, he said, should now act as young heroes, protecting their families, parents and grandparents.

But to officials, it appears that young people are not doing that. Islands like Mykonos and Ios are buzzing with beach parties, defying stiff regulations and steep fines for those failing to observe rules that require them to remain seated at bars, open-air nightclubs and concerts.

It is no wonder, health experts say, that the average age of cases here has now dropped from 72 to 52, with the slide slipping more and more into younger age groups traveling around the country during summer break.

Cars queue at Promahonas border crossing with Bulgaria, which is the only land border into Greece that is open, July 6, 2020.

Charalambos Gogos is a doctor advising the state government’s response.

He explained the alarming element in this flare-up is the speed with which it is spreading. It has doubled, he said, in just a matter of days.

Any further rise from this point on, he warned, will spell an unchecked pandemic. He said it is imperative to keep the rate and pace of infections down.

With Greece’s economy largely dependent on tourism, government officials say they do not want to resort to a new nationwide lockdown, fearing it could scare travelers and business away.

 

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