Through the cool and low-lit nave of an Orthodox church in central Athens, congregants enter for a quick morning prayer before work.
A masked woman briefly bows before an icon of the Virgin Mary before heading back out into the sweltering heat.
They are preparing to head out for Dekapentavgoustos, starting today – the third most important date in the Greek Orthodox Calendar after Easter and Christmas. But they do so in the shadow of a surge in coronavirus cases that has already seen Greece’s second wave eclipse its first.
Across the country, Greeks flock from urban centres to their hometowns and villages to celebrate the assumption of Mary. Church services and processions in the morning are followed by music and dancing in village squares late into the night.
This year, Covid-related regulations have put a dampener on events.
When cases started rising dramatically in early August, the government announced a series of new measures to contain the spread, including the prohibition of all religious festivals.
While services inside churches are permitted, congregations must wear masks and maintain social distancing. Priests are exempt from mask-wearing, though.
On Wednesday, Greece recorded its highest ever daily tally of 262, 22 of which were traced to foreign travelers. The country has been celebrated internationally for its decisive handling of the pandemic, but after a big push to welcome international tourists, and an easing of lockdown, the situation is looking precarious – so much so that the UK is considering whether to add it to its quarantine list.
But this hasn’t stopped Greeks heading out of town for the holiday. The streets of Athens are eerily quiet. The cars that usually fill every inch of uneven pavement are gone, and many of the city’s bars and restaurants are closed.
Gkikas Magiorkinis, one of the country’s top infectious disease experts and an assistant professor of hygiene and epidemiology at Athens University, says this weekend is a critical one for the pandemic.
He points out that on August 15th, congregations enter churches to venerate – kiss – icons of the Virgin Mary, potentially rendering the church services “superspreader” events.
Another issue is enforcement. In rural areas and on islands, there is less police oversight than in urban centres.
“There is a significant probability that some [festivals] will happen anyway,” Professor Magiorkinis explains.
According to the new measures, individuals will be fined €150 if they take part in a procession.
“Yes there are fines. But if there’s a crowd, it’s very difficult to control,” he says.
In Athens, Father Athenasios of the Holy Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Chryssospiliotissa in Athens is welcoming the archbishop Ieronymos II, of Athens, to lead services at his church rather than head to the islands.
Some seats have been taped over to enable social distancing during the service, and an outdoor speaker system has been rigged so congregants outside can hear the liturgy.
The priest is happy to welcome the archbishop, but far from happy about the restrictions.
“I prefer the rules of God before the rules of the government,” he says.
The Orthodox church has considerable influence in Greece, but since the coronavirus outbreak has had to capitulate on a number of issues, including the ban on services through March and April.
Father Athenasios says he will follow the rules but sees no reason for them.
“In our faith there is no coronavirus,” he explains. “God cleans the church and the congregation.”
For many in Greece, 15th August is not just a religious holiday, but also the period they take annual leave.
Gkikas Magiorkinis fears that as August draws to a close, people will return to urban centres and spread the virus amongst friends and family.
“We’ve already seen this happen this last week,” he said.
Despite the government’s initial hardline approach to the lockdown in March and April, in which Greeks had to request permission via text message to leave their homes, officials insist there will not be another country-wide lockdown.
Professor Magiorkinis predicts an escalation of localised measures. In Poros for example, an island two hours from Athens, the government enforced an 11pm curfew after 30 cases among young people were reported last week. Mask wearing is mandatory island-wide.
Another deterrent to stricter measures is the dire need for tourism revenue, both domestic and international, now that Greece faces a recession on par with its 2009 sovereign debt crisis.
Lastly, Professor Magiorkinis fears Greek people are fatigued, and that measures to restrict movement this weekend may be ineffectual.
“We literally cancelled Easter. We can’t cancel this too,” he says. But the repercussions may be huge.
The post Fears public holiday in Greece could spread virus as case numbers soar appeared first on The Telegraph.