ATHENS (Reuters) – Greeks were finally allowed to get their hair cut, buy books and flowers and even venture back onto the beaches on Monday as part of a gradual easing of lockdown restrictions imposed six weeks ago to curb the spread of the new coronavirus.
Police conducted inspections on buses, in metro stations and shops to make sure people were wearing the mandatory protective masks and respecting social distancing rules. Municipal workers sprayed bus stops and other public venues.
“(Relaxing the lockdown) is a positive step, it will give our morale a boost, always of course with masks and safety,” said Efi Karanikolaou, a customer at a reopened hair salon.
Greeks no longer need a form stating a valid reason – such as shopping for food or medicine, or taking physical exercise – for permission to leave their homes.
Athens and other cities saw increased traffic flows and queues formed outside electrical appliance shops, which also reopened. In churches, the faithful could pray individually and light candles, though services have not yet resumed.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held face-to-face talks with Greece’s newly-installed president, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, a meeting he said officially signalled “Greece’s transition to the next phase”. Greece’s president is a mainly ceremonial head of state and is picked by parliament.
“Starting from today, we are gradually relaxing the cord of tough restrictions we imposed,” Mitsotakis, a conservative, told Sakellaropoulou at the presidential palace, where neither wore a mask. “We must now be twice as careful”.
Greece, a country of 11 million people, has so far registered 2,626 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, and 144 deaths, far fewer than in many other European countries.
But Greece, which only emerged in 2018 from a debt crisis that wiped out a quarter of its economic output, is desperate to let businesses reopen and fears the coronavirus pandemic will ravage this year’s tourism revenues, a pillar of its economy.
Small retail stores including florists, booksellers and opticians are among the businesses allowed to reopen. Their working hours are likely to be extended due to high pent-up demand, but many felt a sense of unease.
“The future is unknown, we are in uncharted waters,” said bookstore owner Antonis Feloulis, adding that he felt he was starting again from scratch after the lockdown.
“We don’t know if we will close again, if the business will continue. Everything is unsure.”
Small groups could be seen on a beach in Athens and a few people took a dip in the Aegean Sea.
Schools, restaurants and bars are expected to reopen later this month. Hotels will start to open from June 1.
(Additional reporting by Angeliki Koutantou and Alkis Konstantinidis; Editing by Gareth Jones)