OEIRAS, Portugal — When the bathing season officially opened on June 10 — Portugal’s national day — this seaside suburb of Lisbon was prepared.
Billboards warned sunbathers to keep 1.5 meters between towels; a walk-through disinfection station offered a voluntary body spray to anybody worried they’d picked up coronavirus on the sand; and traffic-light-style panels towered over entrances, ready to flash red if the too many people hit the beach.
“We want you to enjoy yourselves,” Mayor Isaltino Morais told Oeiras residents. “Respect all the rules so everybody can have fun in safety.”
With the nearest beaches to downtown Lisbon, Oeiras city hall has invested €400,000 to keep bathers safe as Portugal’s deconfinement measures allow a gradual return to normal life, even as the capital region maintains consistent increases in new COVID-19 cases.
Portugal was hailed as a rare Western European success story as a swift lockdown kept infection and death rates under control while the pandemic wreaked havoc on health systems elsewhere. However, in recent weeks it’s failed to bring infection rates down in line with its neighbors.
“From the start, Portugal moved fast to track and test.” — Graça Freitas, national health director
Over the past 10 days, this country of 10 million has registered 3,100 new cases. That’s more than Spain, Italy or France, which have populations between four and six times larger.
“Have we really understood that the pandemic isn’t over?” President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa asked in his national day speech to the nation. “Portugal cannot pretend that the pandemic did not, and does not, exist.”
Yet authorities insist that the virus is under control.
Over 90 percent of new cases are in the greater Lisbon area, mostly in an arc of working class suburbs stretching over the north of the capital.
The government says the higher numbers are the result of increased testing among workers on construction sites, factories and warehouses which have been the focus of latest outbreaks.
“This has a lot to do with our policy of detecting cases. From the start, Portugal moved fast to track and test,” said Graça Freitas, national health director. “We very actively search for cases.”
With over 15,000 tests per day, Portugal has one of the highest testing rates in the European Union.
“We’ve been able to detect and isolate cases quickly in the great majority of cases,” Freitas told a news conference Friday. “The country should be proud of … its public health network’s capacity to cut infection chains by quickly identifying and isolating cases.”
Authorities point out that the death rate and the number of cases needing hospital or intensive care treatment have stayed low.
Portugal registered only one COVID death Friday. With 147.5 deaths per million people, its pandemic mortality level is almost four times lower than Spain’s or Italy’s.
“This concentration of cases around Lisbon has not had an impact on the number of people hospitalized or sent to intensive care,” said Freitas. “Most of the cases are healthy young people with light symptoms.”
There are just 440 cases in hospital and 73 in intensive care. Nevertheless, the government is setting up a special response office for the Lisbon region to coordinate action by national and local authorities, bringing in the health service, social workers and the police.
Portugal is trying to balance the risk of a coronavirus comeback with the need to relaunch an economy due to shrink between 9.4 percent and 11.3 percent this year, according to a forecast this week by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
The government launched the third phase of a deconfinement plan at the start of this month, allowing shopping malls and gymnasiums to reopen and relaxing customer limits in restaurants.
Top-flight football resumed June 3, but with games played in empty stadiums, the sport is unlikely to make its usual annual contribution of around €400 million to the economy.
Pressure to open beaches was intense in a country where “not my beach” is the equivalent of England’s “not my cup of tea.”
The government is also keen to encourage citizens to head to the coast this summer to boost a tourism sector that generated 14 percent of gross domestic product last year, but is now starved of foreign visitors.
Rebelo de Sousa donned his trunks and plunged into a chilly Atlantic last week as part of a drive to encourage domestic tourism.
“Use common sense care and distancing, respect the capacity of each beach then you can swim as much as you want,” the president told the media. “Keep you mask on, except while swimming.”
The government has launched an app to give bathers real-time information on crowd levels so they can pick less-packed beaches.
Other traditions are being curtailed. Mid-June is the time of festivities to celebrate cities’ patron saints, but authorities have warned Lisbonites not to hold the traditional street parties fueled by red wine and grilled sardines this weekend.
“Despite the progress, we have to live with extra care,” Deputy Health Minister Jamila Madeira said Friday. “Let’s hope we can return to these joyous traditions as soon as possible.”