COVID-19 SHUTDOWN – THE SUMMER SEQUEL: Not as big as the original, but city’s administrative building and most of Svalbardhallen again closed as residents return from holidays

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A mini “surge” of COVID-19 cases in Norway at a time when many Longyearbyen residents are returning from summer holidays on the mainland and elsewhere is prompting city officials to close its main administrative building and everything but the swimming pool at Svalbardhallen.

Longyearbyen Hospital also issued a strongly worded reminder about the potential danger and necessary precautions since “it is easy to quickly done to forget,” and COVID-19 and infection protection are NOT fake news.”

The closures were announced a day after a series of heighten virus-related restrictions took effect nationwide, most prominently the prohibiting of serving alcohol in bars and restaurants after midnight. Norway also in recent days added new countries with upward spikes in cases to its “red list,” meaning people arriving from those countries must go into a 10-day quarantine on the mainland immediately upon arrival.

Longyearbyen’s municipal government issued a statement Monday that Næringsbygget will be closed to the public until Aug. 31 “due to increased infections developing on the mainland,” similar to the closure that occurred when the pandemic was declared in March.

“Persons with prior agreements can be met at the main entrance and escorted to their meeting place by the case officer,” the notice states. “The decision was made to shield important functions such as crisis management, emergency preparedness functions and societal functions from possible infection.”

A short time later the closure of most operations at Svalbardhallen was announced.

“Bad news for those of you who like to work out in the gym,” Are Nundal wrote, sharing a post by Svalbard Turn about the closure. “But unfortunately it is necessary now that the infection is increasing and many are returning from the mainland. The swimming hall is open.”

News about the shutdown at Svalbardhallen in particular was not popular among locals reacting on social media.

“A well-intentioned measure, but I struggle to see the common sense behind it,” one commenter wrote on a Longyearbyen community information Facebook page. “A number of measures have been taken to ensure safety during exercise and preventing contamination in the gym: limitations of 10 people, access to disinfection which is also used on the equipment, hand sanitizer and fewer available treadmills. Information about hygiene and distance is also hung up.”

Many also noted tourists (although considerably fewer than during “normal” years) are still arriving along with returning vacationers, and they and locals can gather in cafes, stores and pubs where crowding is more likely.

At the same time, some comments agreed with officials who have taken a hard-line since the beginning of the pandemic about keeping Svalbard free of cases, due to its lack of medical facilities and remoteness from transportation/treatment on the mainland.

Those concerns have been highlighted on a global scale for most of the past two weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak aboard Hurtigruten’s Roald Amundsen expedition cruise ship that occurred during two week-long cruises in Svalbard during the last half of July. Company and other officials are under a barrage of scrutiny for actions deemed improper and/or illegal ranging from preventative measures before the cruises to failing to notify passengers and health officials afterwards.

While the ship did not dock in any ports in Svalbard, it did pick up two women from a boat near Longyearbyen and dropped then off at a cabin along the shore of west Spitsbergen, and they and others on the boat were in contact with people who subsequently arrived in Longyearbyen. The outbreak has resulted in other heightened alarms about vessels in the area, including the detention of Hurtigruten’s Spitsbergen ship in Tromsø after a Svalbard voyage to ensure all passengers and crew did not have the virus.

Longyearbyen Hospital posted a Facebook notice Tuesday alerting people to the potential risk of returning residents and reminding them of precautions, including:

• Take infection recommendations and rules seriously.

• Accept as a starting point that someone around you may be infected.

• Keep your distance.

• Don’t handshake or hug anyone other than the ones you live with.

• Limit social activities.

• Limit travel business.

• Remember that infected can be without symptoms, or have vague symptoms.

• COVID-19 and infection protection are NOT fake news.