Travel Restrictions Remain as Armenia Maintains Caution with COVID-19

YEREVAN—Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has cautioned Armenians to remain vigilant and adhere to social distancing rules as the country posts a steady decline in new COVID-19 cases. “Of course the epidemiological situation’s improvement is still relative,” said the Prime Minister during an afternoon press briefing on Wednesday. The average number of newly recorded cases fell from almost 700 per day in late June to just over 300 in the end of July—figures last seen in mid-May. In terms of testing, less than 17 percent of tests conducted on Tuesday came back positive, the lowest in months.

The number of daily recoveries has surpassed new infection rates consistently throughout most of the month of July with the number of active cases dipping below 10-thousand this week for the first time since June 14. The subsequent decrease in cases has also been reflected in hospital occupancy rates. According to Health Minister Arsen Torosyan, there are now fewer than 500 patients requiring hospitalization; hospital bed vacancies are growing. After having scrambled to rapidly expand the medical system’s capability between March and June to meet demand—reaching its peak on July 7—the Health Minister announced that at least three medical centers in the provinces and another three in Yerevan will be reverting back to treating non-COVID-19 cases. “However, beds will remain on standby in case of a new spike in cases,” added Torosyan, stating this trend is set to continue and even pick up pace. 

The improving public health situation has been attributed by Health Ministry spokeswoman Alina Nikoghosyan to widespread respect for social distancing rules, face coverings and frequent hand washing by the Armenian population. “We have been more vigilant during the last few months,” Nikoghosyan told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “I hope that this pace continues.” Seemingly in line with that assertion, officials have also announced a steady decrease in new fines issued to citizens and businesses, despite ramping up regulatory inspections. This data suggests increased compliance with guidelines.

Health inspectors checking for compliance in transportation van (Photo: Armenian Unified Infocenter, July 28, 2020)

Still, the summer season has pushed many to seek cooler weather outside the Armenian capital, while maintaining social distancing etiquette. One notable breach of these regulations reportedly occurred during a massive beach party organized by a parliamentarian affiliated with the governing “My Step” coalition. Parliamentary deputy Hayk Sargsyan was fined amidst public uproar after pictures of him at a weekend gathering made their rounds on social media. The party organized by Sargsyan at a resort on Lake Sevan reportedly featured live music and attendees were seen eschewing mask wearing and social distancing regulations. The White Shorja beach club was shut down for two weeks despite the lawmaker’s public apology.

Torosyan also echoed the Prime Minister’s call for people to remain prudent and maintain social distancing protocols. Pashinyan cited recent reports of new spikes in several other countries which had hitherto succeeded in containing the virus as examples of how easily the fragile epidemiological situation could be overturned. For this reason, Pashinyan also announced that restrictions on movement in and out of the country will remain in place—with certain exceptions—throughout the month of August. Recognizing the significance for the tourism industry (August being the busiest month) Pashinyan rationalized the decision as necessary to protect the health of fellow citizens as the COVID-19 situation across the country fluctuates. Instead, he portrayed the situation as a good opportunity to promote domestic tourism. “Think of this as a chance for Armenians to discover their own country,” he said. Indeed, hotels and resorts across the country have been reporting high occupancy rates. 

Still, certain airlines have resumed regular and charter flights to the Armenian capital, including Air France, Belavia and others. Iceland Air, which conducted its first charter between Los Angeles and Yerevan this month, is scheduled to conduct three more such connecting flights between the two cities in August. Other airlines are expected to announce new flight schedules in the coming weeks. Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinyan also announced that the government was now in the midst of establishing new regulations in anticipation of lifting further restrictions on certain activities which had remained off limits since the State of Emergency was first announced in March.

Armenia received early praise for its initial virus containment efforts in late March and early April. However the numbers of new infections began to rise dramatically following the easing of restrictions on business activities and individual movement on May 4, with Armenia recording some of the highest infection rates per million in the world. The epidemiological situation began to stabilize in late June before experiencing a steady drop throughout the month of July. Public health officials estimate that the numbers will fall back below 100 cases per day before the end of August, with the school year expected to resume in September.

Armenia has registered a total of 37,937 COVID-19 cases since the beginning of March—9,165 of which are currently active. Over 27-thousand patients have since recovered, while 723 have succumbed to the virus. A further 225 patients with COVID-19 have also died of unrelated causes since the pandemic began. A total of 160,380 tests have been conducted.

Raffi Elliott

Raffi Elliott

Columnist & Armenia Correspondent
Raffi Elliott is a Canadian-Armenian political risk analyst and journalist based in Yerevan, Armenia. A former correspondent and columnist for the Armenian Weekly, his focus is socioeconomic, political, business and diplomatic issues in Armenia.

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