Reflections and observations on a mask-light holiday in Greece in a COVID age. Having spent 504 hours on holiday, we had a mask on our faces for about… 90 minutes. We felt safe and at ease.
Living in Copenhagen, capital of one of the countries in the world that tackled the first wave of the COVID-19 crisis best — choosing a possible holiday destination involved researching what other beach holiday nations in Europe had done well, too. Coming from Denmark, where the authorities never recommended facemasks (until early August, only then recommending them for use on public transport in rush-hour), I was also keen to travel somewhere that was COVID-safe and where if not mask-free, then mask-light. I could have gone to Norway, Iceland, Finland or the Baltics, but I yearned for southern climes.
It was a bit of a dice roll back in May. Copenhagen was finally opening up again after the lockdown. Travelling for summer holidays was an uncertainty - well, EVERYTHING was an uncertainty. But airlines started sending emails and suddenly, it was possible to book certain destinations in Europe from the middle of June. There was light at the end of the tunnel and much-needed optimism.
It was a short list back then - basically Portugal and Greece - and the choice was easy. I have been coming to a certain Greek island for more than twenty years and always want to return.
While booking the flights, even the airlines were loud and clear that re-booking or refunding would be easy and inexpensive, given the tense situation. The hotel was booked through Booking.com and last minute cancellation was no problem. As the weeks progressed, optimism increased, but I never really counted on actually travelling until just a couple weeks prior to departure.
Greece is probably the country in Europe that tackled COVID-19 best. A low infection rate and just over 200 fatalities in a population of 10 million. At time of writing (mid-August 2020), there are some infection spikes in cities like Thessaloniki and talk of a second-wave, but some of the islands in the archipelago I was heading to, including my destination, never even had one infection case. Greece was going to be a good choice.
My girlfriend and I spent three weeks on the island, enjoying everything I love about the island, Greece and the Greeks. It is, however, a strange experience. This country counts on tourism for a quarter of it’s GNP so it was never going to go well in a pandemic year. And this wasn’t one of the picture-perfect, Mamma Mia islands - it’s more of a working island with tourists. Through the years, most tourists have been Greeks and Italians, with a large group of Danes who have been coming since the Seventies and a more recent influx of big city Turks from Istanbul and Bodrum. After that, only a smattering of French, Dutch, Swedes and Germans, et al.
It’s always been chill and quiet here but this year it was a bizarre experience. We could always find a beach lounger, we didn’t need to reserve tables at the two best restaurants on the island and most of the tourists were Greeks, mixing with the islanders. It felt so very Greek, as opposed to a typical hybrid European summer holiday. It was a strange mix of “we have the place to ourselves!” and sympathising with our friends on the island who make their money in the tourist season.
Even though Greece was aware it would be a tough summer, they were nevertheless extremely and impressively prepared from early on. We were required to fill out a Passenger Location Form minimum 24 hours before departure, listing all of our addresses during our stay. Greece was keen on tourism, but wanted obviously to protect itself from infections from abroad. At midnight on the day before we travelled, we received a QR code in an email from the Greek authorities. Without it, we wouldn’t be allowed to enter the country.
Even though Denmark never did facemasks, the airport required them, as did the airlines. We put on our first mask ever when we got off the Metro in Copenhagen and entered Copenhagen Airport. They cost €4.00 at a pharmacy. The airport was selling them, too. €1.50 per mask.
Upon arrival in Athens, we had to show our QR code. As Danes, we were waved through, but the Swedes on the flight were required to have a COVID-19 test on the spot and offered a paid night at a hotel for a 24 hour period until their tests were done. If all was well, they could enter the country. Outside the airport, waiting for a taxi, we watched everyone come out of the airport, theatrically ripping off their masks, shoving them into their pockets.
We had an overnight stay in Athens before heading to the island. The taxi required them, as well as only being allowed to carry two passengers. The driver asked where we were from and when we replied “Denmark”, he knew that our country did well through COVID. He then said he didn’t mind if we didn’t wear masks as “the police aren’t checking today”. The hotel was a self check-in, due to eliminating personal contact because of COVID-19, but it was easy and efficient. The remote controls for the TV and AC were covered in plastic film. Breakfast was in the fridge. The jacuzzi on the roof was empty. Otherwise, it all felt normal.
We wandered the streets of Old Athens and found a café in the afternoon. Serving staff are required to wear masks, but not customers on the outdoor seating. It was here that we noticed that masks were usually around the chin, ready to be pulled up in a hurry. No customers wore them and we saw people wearing them on busses and coming out of Metro stations, but they immediately took them off when disembarking, shoving them into bags or pockets.
On the way back to the airport the next day, the taxi driver said that the police “were checking today” and we would get fined €150 if they saw us without masks, so we wore them. No problem. The airport lounge in Athens seemed to be an acceptable mask-free zone - fair enough when you’re consuming drinks and food.
Arrival at the tiny airport on the island was quick and efficient and we soon arrived at the hotel. Our host had a full visor on and welcomed us with a rundown of the Greek rules for masks - carry one in your pocket or beach bag and wear them in the shops or risk a €150 fine - and the shop would get slapped with a €500 fine. We never saw the hotel staff — a family — with masks after that first impression. We were told that the hotel would only clean the rooms every third day - another regulation from the authorities - and the pool was empty. We are only 100 metres from the beach, so no problem there.
During our three weeks on the island, we followed the locals’ lead. We dutifully pulled out our crumpled masks to enter shops and supermarkets and on short taxi rides. We found some new ones for the trip home. As we entered the shops, the staff put on theirs. No big deal. Although if you knew the locals - and they recognised you - we could pop in quickly without one.
All of the serving staff have them on, but often they are around their chin, ready to be pulled up. The authorities sent a squad of off-island cops to police mask-wearing among the staff at tavernas and in shops. If the staff have them covering their nose and mouth, you know the cops are around. Word-of-mouth travels fast in small communities.
The Greeks are similar to the Danes in many ways. A unique culture surrounded by other countries that are very different in culture and language. We all listen to the authorities and take the pandemic seriously but both of our cultures are pragmatic (from the Greek pragmatikos ‘relating to fact’, from pragma ‘deed’ (from the stem of prattein ‘do’)) and while everyone I have spoken to here completely understand the necessity of the rules, we’re from countries that did so well in the face of COVID, so we’re doing the right thing, going through the motions, but also freestyling a bit.
Interestingly, I had to overnight at the local hospital after a minor tumble and stitches to the head - just to be sure. Nobody in the ward - patients or staff - were wearing masks - although they did in the emergency ward. We arrived in an ambulance, but otherwise nobody is allowed to enter the hospital grounds without having a good reason. They take your photo and ask you a bunch of questions. A guarded perimeter around the hospital.
Tourists from other countries arrived during our stay. You could spot the newbies by their masks on their chin or tied around their wrist or overarm. They disappear from view the next day after the newbies realise that nobody is wearing them. They are stuck in their pockets until they need to visit a supermarket. The French and Italians who arrived in Greece by car report that they were stopped and tested thoroughly at the border. Greece is protecting its border very efficiently and allowing for a certain espace libre within.
We calculated that during the 504 hours we spent on the Greek island, we wore a facemask for about 90 minutes. Popping in and out of shops or supermarkets and the occasional short taxi ride. Basically the same as all the locals and other tourists.
Some of the rules regarding bars and clubs were tightened after we arrived, due to a few infections in Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki, but that has little consequence on this island, with only one nightclub.
Infections are rising around Europe once again - we follow the news closely like everyone else. Greece continues to do fine and Denmark, as well, with only some local infection spikes that the authorities are tackling. While we were gone, the Danish authorities for the first time ever, started suggesting mask use. Loosely suggesting to use them on public transport — when it’s busy — and also making them mandatory on public transport in seven towns with infection spikes. But they are making clear that masks are merely a supplement to hygiene and social distancing. They are very clear and strategic in their language that masks are just a part of the bigger picture.
We also knew that Copenhagen Airport has free COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers. We arrived at midnight and it was still open. We exited the airport and took off our tired old masks and rode the Metro home with our fellow Copenhageners— ready to return to daily life after a brilliant and safe summer holiday.