MAYDAY UNTIL MAY DAY: Governor extends Svalbard quarantine order until May 1, citing its effectiveness; length of travel ban to be discussed next week with national officials

sundial

Photo of polar bear on world’s northernmost sundial overlooking a visitor-free Longyearbyen by Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.

The first local reopenings are set to begin with the kindergartens on Monday, but Svalbard as a whole will remain under a quarantine order until at least May 1 in yet another two-week extension to the order that originated March 13, The Governor of Svalbard announced Friday. Meanwhile, a separate meeting is scheduled next week with national officials to discuss a ban on visitor travel to the archipelago, the duration of which remains unknown.

“The (quarantine) decision was made in consultation with the central authorities, as well as communicable disease experts and Longyearbyen’s local government,” Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said in a prepared statement.

“We will, in line with the national strategy, have a gentle softening of the infection control regime by gradually opening kindergartens from April 20 and parts of the school from April 27, in line with the decisions of central authorities. It is important that this is done safely and in collaboration with the health officials, parents and staff.”

The order means anybody arriving in Svalbard must spend 14 days in home quarantine, regardless of whether they completed a similar confinement on the mainland, although exceptions are made for certain essential occupations and other special circumstances. The terms of quarantine do not prohibit a person not showing symptoms from leaving their homes, but they cannot enter other premises and their ability to interact with other persons is extremely limited.

Svalbard remains one of the few places in the world free of officially diagnosed COVID-19 cases, which officials credit at least in part to the ban on travellers (and exile of visitors who were here when the quarantine began) because of concerns about limited local healthcare services. The shutdown resulted in a reported 90 percent layoff of tourism employees during for the peak spring season and expected loss of the summer cruise ship season, at the least.

Askholt, in her statement, notes there are still travel restrictions on the mainland such as a ban on non-necessary leisure travel and, given Svalbard’s ban is considerably more strict, “it is now not advisable to evaluate measures in Svalbard.” A meeting is scheduled next week with officials from the justice and health ministries, plus other related agencies, to assess the handling of the situation in Svalbard to date.

“We are fully aware of the difficult situation many businesses in Svalbard, especially in tourism, and their employees are in,” she said. “However, it is important to emphasize that the number one job is to prevent and limit infectiosn and protect the population. Life and health always come first.”

“Unfortunately we cannot now answer how long this situation will last. We work closely with central authorities to create a strategy to normalize the situation in Svalbard.”