A day after a ban on travelling to Svalbard was announced for anyone under the coronavirus quarantine – when even top officials and airport security officials at airports were unsure if the ban applied to permanent residents as well as tourists, and what few countries were exempt – The Governor of Svalbard announced at Saturday the ban applies to everybody who’s returned from a country outside Norway other than Sweden and Finland since Feb. 27.
“People who arrive Norway from anywhere other than Sweden and Finland are going to quarantine on the mainland,” the governor announced in a statement. “In other words, residents in Svalbard are not going to travel ‘home’ to Svalbard until after the quarantine period.”
However, an exemption was also enacted today for people in certain critical public occupations such as health care and transportation. Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said the specifics of how the policy will be enforced against those who must return to the mainland and who is exempt are still being determined.
“I don’t have the solution yet,” she said.
Police Chief Lt. Espen Olsen urged people now under quarantine to remain calm while the specifics are determined.
“The police are not going to go around kicking in anyone’s doors,” he said. “People should not do anything rash.”
An alert issued by Longyearbyen’s government to local residents states “it urgent to get in contact with you that have visiting guests staying in your apartment” (i.e. Airbnb, subleasing or non-paying visitors) by calling 7902 2150 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. “This applies to visitors who traveled or coming from countries outside of Norway. This does not apply visitor staying in hotels.”
Askholt said officials with the governor’s office, city, airport, hospital and other entities are discussing local residents who qualify for the exemption.
“I think that for most of those we have made a list,” she said. “We need to make a special judgement for every case and we will have a discussion for those who are applying.”
Generally speaking, it will apply to people in occupations such as health care, the airport and the power plant, Askholt said.
“Without those kind of people doing their jobs the city will break down,” she said.
The nationwide exemption, according to the Norwegian government, applies to “persons who are strictly necessary to maintain the proper operation of critical social functions and attend to the basic needs of the population, including persons carrying goods and passenger transport…use of the exemption must be clarified with the operations management.”
It also states “The Governor of Svalbard may make a decision on the use of the exemption…taking into account the local conditions.”
People under the 14-day nationwide quarantine, enacted Thursday and in effect until at least March 26, must isolate themselves in their residences or visitor accommodations. The policy prohibiting quarantined people arriving in Norway from “outside Nordic countries” entering Svalbard was approved Friday by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security after the governor and Longyearbyen city government said there aren’t adequate tourist accommodations in the archipelago for the quarantine to be enacted practically.
The policy, while drastic compared to the (also drastic) restrictions for mainland Norway, may end up being a preview of what will happen nationwide as Denmark, the Czech Republic and Poland announced during the past day they are closing their borders to all tourists due to the coronavirus. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg told media on Saturday a similar policy is being considered for Norway.
Local social media discussion of the travel ban in Svalbard, where there are no officially diagnosed cases of the coronavirus, have overwhelmingly favored a halt to incoming local traffic and closing Norway’s borders. But considerable anxiety is also being expressed by residents now outside Svalbard regarding improper enforcement of the ban and the enormous adverse consequences an extended absence away from homes and businesses may cause.
Sylvia Gross, a local tourism employee, wrote in an essay posted Saturday on her Facebook page, with detailed figures and facts about local employment and economics, “I honestly believe that shutting down the world for two weeks is a good step to go, as we have to stop spreading the virus…(but) please companies in town, think of your people…maybe there are other possibilities than just fire people.”
There was considerable confusion Friday about the specifics of the Svalbard ban policy, with some local residents reporting they were prevented from returning from trips to the mainland by airport security officials even though they did not leave Norway because they did not have a Norwegian passport. It was also unclear among top public and tourism officials at the local level if the ban applied only to tourists or to residents as well. But by late afternoon travellers were being told or receiving messages – although no updated official statements of the policy were being released – that the ban applied to both groups.
One person who’s spouse with a non-Norwegian passport who was prevented from returning to Longyearbyen on Friday despite only flying to Oslo during the week, who asked not to be identified, said that after contacting the governor’s office and other officials was told they would be allowed to return home Saturday.
About 80 people on a flight from Oslo to Longyearbyen with a stopover in Tromsø on Friday were checked to see if they were affected by the ban at each airport, with relatively few arriving in Svalbard during the afternoon, Svalbardposten reported.
The newspaper also reported Friday that more than 100 tourists were under the quarantine order.
An updated official guideline for those affected by the quarantine order is available in 22 languages. Among other things, it specifies differences for people under “home isolation” and “home quarantine.”
“Home isolation means that you must be isolated from everyone else, including people
you live with,” the guides state. “You must not go out, you should remain in a room by yourself, eat in the
room and not share towels with anyone else.”
“If your condition deteriorates, contact your doctor by phone. The doctor may also
decide that you need to be isolated in hospital. Isolation lasts until your doctor tells you
that you are infection-free or until your test result shows that you do not have COVID19 anymore.”
“Home quarantine” applies “if your doctor has told you that you are not ill, but that you have been exposed to
infection, you must go into quarantine. You must stay at home, but home quarantine is
not as strict as home isolation. Home quarantine means you must reduce your contact with other people as much as
possible, but you do not have to be completely isolated. You must not go to school or
work, or do any other activities, and you must not travel on public transport (bus, tram,
underground, train, air or ferry), but you can go for walks on your own.”
Espen Klungseth Rotevatn, head of Svalbard Folkehøgkole, wrote in a message on his Facebook page that, among other things, parents, teachers and others should work to ensure youths are engaging in responsible behavior during a period of idleness when educational institutions are closed (although remote learning is being activated locally).
“Don’t seek out each other,” he wrote. “Don’t go to parties or seek big crowds. Read books and watch Netflix.”
(This is a breaking story with updates in progress.)