Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said Saturday that he hopes his government will next month begin to reopen the country from the coronavirus lockdown.
“It will have to be gradual, progressive and controlled so we don’t lose in May what we’ve gained in the last two months,” Costa said in an interview with news weekly Expresso. The country has so far been one of Europe’s success stories on managing the virus.
Costa said the government could announce a calendar and program for relaxing the lockdown on April 30, two days before the current state of emergency is due to end. Small neighborhood shops would likely open first, followed by larger high street stores and then malls, he said.
Portugal on Friday extended its state of emergency until May 2. Costa said there was “unanimous” hope the lockdown will not be prolonged further, with pre-school and classes for senior high-school students already due to resume in May. “The priority we have now is to revive the economy,” he said.
But he was cautious about the prospects of Portugal’s vital international tourism sector being opened up in time for the peak summer season.
“I don’t anticipate that the EU’s external borders will be opened that early, as for the internal borders there’s no target fixed for opening them,” Costa said. “This is a year when we have to look to the domestic market.” Tourism accounted for 14 percent of the country’s GDP last year.
He also warned there will “certainly” be restrictions on beach access even in August. “We can’t have crowding. City halls and port authorities will have to take the necessary measures so that we can go to the beach without crowds forming,” he said.
Costa also suggested a gradual return to normality could involve a limited restart of cultural and sporting activities, for example cinemas opening with attendance restricted to every third seat and every other row; or soccer games in empty or partially filled stadiums. Masks will be obligatory in schools and on public transport.
“We all have to realize that for the next year or 18 months we are not going to be living like we were before February,” he cautioned.
Latest figures Saturday showed Portugal had 19,685 confirmed cases, up 665 over 24 hours. The rate of increase seems to have stabilized, averaging 3 percent per day over the past week. The country has recorded a total 687 deaths.
With EU leaders set to meet via videoconference on Thursday to discuss the economic response to the crisis, Costa again rejected a return to austerity and appealed to the Netherlands and other northern countries resisting greater European support for the EU’s most vulnerable economies.
“This is not about solidarity, but about rationality,” he said. “Holland would be committing a serious mistake if it thinks it can continue to be one of the big beneficiaries [of the single market] if it pushes Italy into a losing position.”
Failure to agree a viable economic response would leave the EU at grave risk, he warned: “Right now, it’s clear that the survival and future of the EU is at stake.”