A post-Christmas rise in COVID-19 cases that is “spreading to new parts of the country” means a new series of restrictions and recommendations are being enacted until at least Jan. 18, Prime Minister Era Solberg said Sunday.
The new restrictions, effective as of Monday, include a total ban on serving alcohol in restaurants and pubs, closing public gyms and swimming pools, restricting university classes to online-only and smaller size limits for private/public gatherings that effectively will cancel many of them, Solberg and other government officials said during a press conference in Oslo.
Among the local impacts are the closure of Svalbardhallen, and in-person public services at the city and governor’s offices. Officials are also recommending the use of masks in shops, restaurants, the airport and other common areas “where it is difficult to keep a distance of one meter.”
“After Christmas we have seen fewer people testing themselves, and of those who test themselves the proportion of positive tests is going up,” Solberg said. “The infection rate is increasing and spreading to new parts of the country. I now ask that everyone joins in an effort to avoid a new wave of infections.”
The post-holiday rise is part of an overall “third wave” of COVID-19 infections in Norway and Europe during the past several weeks. Norway estimates its current “R number” – meaning the average number of people one infected person will pass the virus on to – is 1.3. However, the country’s 14-day cumulative number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 inhabitants of 113.6 during the week Dec. 21-27 was the fourth lowest in Europe.
The new restrictions are occurring during lull just before the winter/spring tourism season starts in Svalbard as sunlight begins to return to the archipelago during the final days of the month.
Although in-person university classes are cancelled, elementary classes will continue as normal and high school classes will be permitted with a greater emphasis on digital learning. Folk high schools will also be allowed to meet normally.
Many of the new measures announced Sunday are recommendations, not mandates, including discouraging all private domestic and international travel.
“I ask you not to have any visitors at home,” Solberg said. “Wait a fortnight before inviting anyone home or visiting others.”
Norway has enacted a new requirement that non-residents must have proof they are COVID-19 negative before entering the country.
Municipalities have the authority to enact new rules enforcing many of the new recommendations. The Longyearbyen Community Council, in a statement Sunday, announced “the local council has reviewed the recommendations tonight” and has implemented or is considering changes including:
• The resumption date for classes at Longyearbyen School, which is expected to be announced Monday.
• Cancelling all indoor organized leisure activities , sports activities, cultural events and similar community gatherings indoors, including Svalbardhallen.
“Outdoor activity can be maintained if one can comply with the distance rules,” the statement notes.
The city’s Næringsbygget building is also closed to the public and new in-person appointments for services are suspended, although staff can be contacted at 7902 2150. The Governor of Svalbard also announced Monday it is closing its office to the public. The switchboard will remain open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
“The governor is postponing all services regarding passports/national ID cards, visas, tests for driving licenses and weapons applications,” a statement from the governor notes. “Until further notice, it will not be possible to book new appointments. Contact the governor if you have an absolutely urgent need for a passport/ID card and visa.”
Those seeking VAT refunds can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the form attached, along with a photo of the goods showing they are in Svalbard and a receipt.
Svalbard has no diagnosed COVID-19 cases, but increasing concern has been expressed by many local residents and officials due to travellers returning from the holidays and the scheduled resumption of classes at The University Centre in Svalbard in January. A recently enacted rule states any Svalbard resident infected with COVID-19 must remain on the mainland until a quarantine period is complete and the person shows no signs of infection.