While Russia is stepping up its fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has emerged as the leading voice in increasingly tough measures that could serve as a model for the country’s closure.
Sobyanin has temporarily closed restaurants, bars, parks and most shops in Europe’s largest capital from Saturday, urging Muscovites to stay at home. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin welcomed his approach on Friday, saying that measures adopted by Moscow should “extend to all regions of Russia” as the number of reported coronavirus cases has exceeded 1,000.
“We need strict restrictions” to ensure that the Russians stay home during a planned closure of most jobs next week, Mishustin said during a television interview with Sobyanin and other senior officials who have been assigned to curb the outbreak. “Thanks to preventive measures, we saved time.”
President Vladimir Putin granted the Russians a week’s paid vacation in his first television speech on the Covid-19 threat on Wednesday, while promising benefits to help businesses and individuals manage the crisis.
On Friday, however, the Kremlin withdrew its decision after it was reported that some Russians were planning to travel to the country’s vacation spots or visit relatives to benefit from Aeroflot’s reduced domestic airfares. Mishustin ordered all Russian parks and resorts to be closed.
Sobyanin sent a message on Saturday morning to the residents of the Russian capital with a list of instructions – without mentioning police enforcement – similar to those that apply in European cities that are blocked. This includes restricting going out from home to essential groceries, short walks with family members, or trips to and from work.
Russia reported 228 new cases of coronavirus overnight, totaling 1,264, with four deaths attributable to the virus.
Authorities in Moscow are seriously considering closing the city, said four people who are familiar with discussions on the subject. A representative of the Moscow government declined to comment.
In the centre
The president has allowed Sobyanin, a former Kremlin chief of staff who has led the city of 12.7 million since 2010, to push for stricter restrictions to tackle the biggest public health challenge in Putin’s 20-year reign.
“They play good and bad police officers,” said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. “Putin distributes goodies, while Sobyanin is responsible for unpopular measures.”
Until recently, officials have ruled out a ban imposed by governments in the worst affected European countries, Italy and Spain, as well as France and the UK. Putin’s top public health official, Anna Popova, described the move on Monday as unnecessary.
While Russia’s patient numbers are well below those in these countries, Putin turned to the nation one day after Sobyanin’s warning that official numbers underestimated the true extent of the outbreak and that Moscow actually had almost twice as many cases.
Nikolai Malyshev, a leading infectious disease specialist at the Ministry of Health, warned on state television this week that Russia is preparing for an “explosive development like a nuclear response” with the coronavirus epidemic. In the near future, “a large number of people will get sick and need medical treatment,” he said.
Despite the gradual tightening of restrictions by Moscow, the city has so far remained free of the home restrictions imposed in other capitals such as Paris, London, Rome and Madrid. The subway is open, even though traffic dropped by half last week, and there were a lot of cars on the streets by Saturday.
The representative of the World Health Organization in Russia, Melita Vujnovic, said on Thursday that if Muscovites and others across the country exercise self-discipline and stay at home, officials could avoid strict quarantine.
“If it becomes necessary, I am sure that you will take this action,” she said.
(Updates with Muscovites are said to remain at home in the sixth paragraph, new cases in the seventh.)
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