CORONAVIRUS UPDATES FOR SVALBARD FOR TUESDAY: Vacant housing, full cabins, Bruktikken reopens, MOSAiC researchers reenter spooky world after four isolated months and more

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This story will be updated throughout the day. Photo of researchers walking to the Polarstern frozen in the ice north of Svalbard courtesy of the Alfred Wegener Institute. 

It’s no joke – for those looking for a place to live in Longyearbyen starting in April there’s a realistic possibility of vacancies.

Among the reasons that’s not a joke, of course, is it’s no laughing matter the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic – even though there remains no officially diagnosed cases in Svalbard as of midday Tuesday – include people being forced from their homes and/or Longyearbyen because of the massive tourism and other layoffs. As a result listings for shared rooms and apartments are popping up during what’s normally a peak demand period – although for the past year or so there’s often been nothing available even during “slow” periods.

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“Hoarding” begins immediately after the “everything’s free” Bruktikken second-hand store reopened at 4 p.m. Tuesday, with a maximum of three people allowed inside at a time. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

But in a discussion on the local Facebook page “Homeless, 78 Degrees North” commenters said the vacancies aren’t necessarily a blessing since they still can’t afford the sky-high rents, especially since many are now out work.

“For my part, staying indefinitely in with the rent I have now is not sustainable,” wrote one group member who’s among the many tourism employees feeling the impacts after 90 percent of local workers were laid off due to a total ban on visitors. “Feels (expletive) to have to give my place up, but the landlord is unwilling to lower the rent (which i can understand) and I have to consider the fact that I might not have work for the rest of the year…But it’s a good question. My guess is that we’ll be back in the same situation as before a month after everything starts up again. Is it possible to change it? If so, how? Could we for example plea that there be a cap on how much an apartment is allowed to cost?”

The issue is being discussed by local and national politicians, as the Longyearbyen Community Council is requesting nearly 180 million kroner in virus-related assistance, including 42 million kroner for reimbursement of reducing municipal fees, which could in turn result in lower costs for landlords than could be passed on to tenants.

On a broader scope, the council’s Administrative Committee is scheduled meet at 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss, among other items, allocating four million kroner to short- and medium-term projects that may provide some employment relief due to the crisis.

Also, while it’s not immediate, Norway’s government announced it is providing 726 million kroner to build 2,000 new university student housing units. The largest single allocation is 130 million kroner to The University Centre in Svalbard for 180 units at Elvesletta that will double current capacity.

But while there’s openings in residential housing, there’s unexpectedly high demand for a handful of cabins being offered this weekend and next by the Longyearbyen Hunting and Fishing Association. A post on the group’s Facebook page notes there were 250 applications, which obviously meant “we couldn’t help everyone with cabins.”

In other local events/developments Tuesday:

Svalbardbutikken is reducing its rebate rate for members to one percent instead of four percent of total purchases as of April 1 due to drastically lower sales. The store recently also reduced its hours and trimmed it staff to one shift instead of two.

• Further work on snow barriers and other avalanche protection measures is temporarily on hold due to the coronavirus crisis, Svalbardposten reported.

Bruktikken will be open from 4-7 p.m. after being closed since the nationwide quarantine began more than two weeks ago, but a maximum of three people at a time are allowed in the “everything’s free” secondhand store.

• Up to ten students are being invited to sign up for a hike escorted by a polar bear guard at Vinkelstasjonen beginning at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

The ski hill will be open from 1-3 p.m., with up to six youths at a time able to sign up for one-hour slots.

Boat trips to Pyramiden (or as close as the ice edge allows) aboard the MS Billefjord from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. are being offered Wednesday and Saturday for a discounted price of 950 kroner for adults and 500 kroner for youths. Register in advance at the link.

• Longyearbyen Library’s book taxi is making deliveries from 3-5 p.m. Tuesday. Send requests (specific or a “surprise package” by e-maill by 2 p.m.

Kroa is eliminating its lunch hours as of April 1. It’s new hours are from 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.

Personalized Isbjörnar cartoons are being offered from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday by Haakon Sandvik at 78 Grader Tax-Free at prices starting at about 200 kr. that include a matte frame from the adjacent Barbara Foto og Ramme.

• About researchers that spent the past four months aboard the Polarstern vessel north of Svalbard as part of the year-long MOSAiC project are returning to Tromsø on Tuesday and “will hardly be able to recognize the life they left in December,” according to The Independent Barents Observer.

• Speaking of people isolated from the “real world” in its new state, another update on the two women overwintering for nine months at a remote cabin during their “Heart in the Ice” adventure.