Airplanes took off, half-empty buses left big cities and restaurants started admitting customers nearly three months after the COVID-19 pandemic made its foray into Turkey.
On Monday, a new life began for millions, especially for people in big cities who were subject to restrictions hampering daily life, as authorities lifted more measures. This “new normal,” as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described, will determine the course of the pandemic that killed more than 4,500 people in the country. As a matter of fact, it was the decreasing daily death toll, increasing recoveries and fewer new cases that paved the way for lifting restrictions. This, in turn, was thanks to more people adhering to strict rules like wearing masks and adopting social distancing, according to health authorities.
Turkey will now wait and see if the resumption of services, from domestic flights to intercity bus travel, will contribute to more cases or prove that it is safe to return to life as it was before the country’s first case was reported in the second week of March.
Resumption of daily life in many venues was something to celebrate after the lockdown. A minister and an army of journalists accompanied passengers on the first flight in 59 days. National carrier Turkish Airlines (THY) launched a domestic flight between the country’s most populated city Istanbul and the capital Ankara on Monday morning. Some 156 passengers boarded the plane with a ceremony at Istanbul Airport. Airports in Istanbul, Ankara, Turkey’s third-largest city İzmir, the Mediterranean resort city of Antalya and the Black Sea city Trabzon reopened for limited daily flights, and more airports will reopen on June 3. Authorities are mulling over resuming international flights based on the course of the pandemic.
Passengers will receive a code from the Health Ministry’s Hayat Eve Sığar (Life Fits Inside Home) for flights. Also applicable in other forms of travel, the code confirms the health condition of the passenger; sick patrons are not allowed. Apart from laptops, purses and baby strollers, all hand baggage is banned on flights while wearing masks is mandatory. Passengers are also screened for body temperature at airport entrances through thermal cameras. The ticket checking procedure is now skipped and instead, passengers scan a code on their paperwork into devices installed at the airport. Those seeing off passengers are not allowed inside the airport terminal. Flights resume only after airports are certified as safe against COVID-19. From disinfection work to social distancing, airports have been preparing for a month for reopening.
Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure Adil Karaismailoğlu told reporters before embarking on the Istanbul-Ankara flight that social distancing, the continuous wearing of masks and complying with personal hygiene rules, such as using hand sanitizers, is required for airport personnel. Flights are also staffed with hygiene experts to monitor that passengers are complying with rules. Shuttle services will also have social distancing seating and all passengers will be required to wear masks. Flights will also be less frequent than before to prevent crowding at the airports.
The lifting of travel restrictions was a relief for millions stuck in Turkey’s 15 big cities as the summer kicked off. Throngs of passengers flocked to the July 15 Democracy Bus Terminal, Istanbul’s main hub for intercity buses in the early hours of Monday, a few hours after a weekend curfew in the city was lifted. Buses operate half-full due to coronavirus measures, while companies had to arrange additional trips to respond to overwhelming demand from passengers eager to travel to their hometowns or vacation resorts.
In the northern city of Zonguldak, Turkey’s coal hub, miners returned to work on Monday, after production terminated on March 31 as part of anti-pandemic measures. Health care personnel checked the body temperature of miners before hundreds of workers descended underground wearing masks and keeping their distance from each other early Monday.
Turkey, pursuing double-digit economic growth, struggled to keep its economy running while it was striving to prioritize public health. As COVID-19 cases dropped, some other key sectors reopened as well on Monday. Among them were restaurants and cafes. Eateries that survived on takeaway orders, were fully opened on Monday. Staff members will hand out kolonya and sanitizers to arriving customers and check their body temperature before admission. All staff are required to wear masks while patrons can only remove their masks while eating and drinking. Personnel will disinfect tables after each customer leaves and furniture will be set apart to observe social distancing. Paper menus, an item touched countless times every day, are also absent from tables.
Regulars of bars, nightclubs and hookah lounges will have to wait longer, however, as they remain closed.
Every reopened establishment is required to observe social distancing and hygiene rules and are subject to regular inspections by authorities.
Istanbul’s iconic Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, museums, gyms, child care centers and nurseries were also reopened on Monday amid strict measures.
Hotels and beaches were also reopened though the number of people allowed will likely remain lower than usual due to strict social distancing and hygiene rules. The Health Ministry had earlier issued a long list of public health guidelines for each sector to follow for reopening.
Turkey also started to allow closed visits at prisons, which were banned March 13. Prisoners will be allowed to meet only one next of kin during the interaction, and they will have no physical contact with the visitor.
The easing of restrictions follows a slowdown in confirmed COVID-19 infections and deaths in Turkey. Still, some restrictions, such as the curfew for people age 65 and above and children, remain in place. The government previously ordered barbers, beauty salons and shopping malls to reopen with limited capacity. Friday also saw the faithful returning to mosques for communal prayers after the services at mosques were banned on March 16.
Turkey’s daily COVID-19 death toll continued to follow a downward trend as the number of fatalities rose by 25 and the number of new cases continued to stay under 1,000, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced Sunday. Some 989 more patients recovered from the coronavirus in the past 24 hours, bringing the total in the country to 127,973, while 839 new cases were recorded in the past 24 hours, according to data by the Health Ministry. The number of patients on ventilators continues to decline, Koca said on his Twitter account, noting that the cases continue to remain at the “anticipated level.” “What lies in the upcoming days depends on how much importance we pay to hand hygiene, using masks and practicing social distancing. Tighter precautions mean better results,” Koca said.
Meanwhile, the total number of tests has surpassed 2 million as 35,600 were conducted in the past 24 hours. In a separate statement, the Interior Ministry announced that the quarantine has been lifted in 428 settlements across 64 provinces of Turkey.
For experts, it is too early to lift all restrictions and instances of people ignoring advice for protection show restrictions are still necessary. In the southeastern Turkish province of Gaziantep, 62 people were placed under quarantine after a 32-year-old man who tested positive for COVID-19 visited his family and relatives to exchange a belated Ramadan Bayram (Eid al-Fitr) greeting last week in province’s Islahiye district. Authorities reiterated calls to locals for canceling house visits. In Istanbul’s Esenyurt district, police inspecting minibusses discovered 35 passengers inside one that was restricted to only 7 per coronavirus measures. Three other minibusses had at least 30 passengers, and each driver was issued a fine.
HEAT NOT OBSTACLE FOR VIRUS
As restrictions ease, summer will likely be as lively as it was before, with people heading to vacation resorts. Some believe that the virus will go away with increasing temperatures, but professor İlhami Çelik warns about lingering risk. A member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Science Board that oversees measures, Çelik says that although the virus cannot bear heat, it can still live in the human body. Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Çelik said the virus will not endure the rising temperatures of summer, but the human body will remain its primary host. “Heat is an important factor for the virus to die but the human body is a good host for the virus, as its own heat that enables the virus to live can shield it from outside heat,” he says.
Based on projections, Turkey expects a further decline in cases in the summer, but it is still unknown what’s in store for the country in terms of a pandemic in the autumn, Çelik says.
“With summer’s arrival, people will start going out more and avoid closed spaces. The Turkish public also largely adhered to rules we recommended and this helped to lower the number of cases. Whatever you do, you cannot succeed if people do not follow or care about the rules,” he says.
He also dismissed the myth that seawater or swimming pool water poses an infection risk. “For swimming pools, viruses cannot exist in water with chlorine. What you should be careful instead, is keeping your distance with other swimmers,” he says.