Some protests as lockdown-fatigued Greeks tempted to defy social distancing rules to celebrate festival

Amalia, a high school teacher, was looking forward to Orthodox Easter this weekend as a time to relax with her Athenian family after a challenging period of holding lessons online during Greece’s pandemic lockdown.
Now the 52-year-old is chafing at a last-minute tightening of Greece’s five-week lockdown as the country tries to cement its success so far at containing the spread of coronavirus. 
“It’s hard to accept that my 80-year-old mother has to stay at home by herself at Easter when the rest of the family is only a few blocks away. The temptation to slip out with one of the children and bring her some lunch will be very strong,” she says.”
Greece has achieved one of Europe’s lowest rates of Covid-19 infection, with 2,224 confirmed cases and 108 deaths, mainly by adopting an early lockdown that has been rigorously enforced. But that success could be at risk if lockdown fatigued Greeks defy social distancing rules to celebrate the Orthodox calendar’s most important festival. 
In normal times, some 2m people — one-fifth of Greece’s population — leave the cities to travel to their home villages or islands to celebrate the holiday with extended families, neighbours and friends. Religious ceremonies are followed by a feast of lamb roasted on a spit and traditional dancing.
This year shuttered churches, tighter social distancing rules and a ban on travelling have effectively cancelled the four-day celebration. But the measures triggered protests at some churches on the evening of Good Friday.
“Easter gatherings, which include the vulnerable elderly, provide ideal conditions for the virus to spread. We can’t afford to celebrate as usual and risk reversing what we’ve done so far,” said Sotiris Tsiodras, the infectious diseases expert leading the government’s televised messaging campaign against Covid-19.
Stefanos, a 30-year-old graphic designer in Athens, said his family in central Greece had sent him a whole slaughtered lamb, their usual Easter gift, in defiance of this year’s ban on spit-roasting.
“What am I going to do with it? Some of my friends are suggesting we find a construction site somewhere and just break the ban,” he said. “But it’s an offence that would be hard to conceal — the aroma would give you away.”
The government’s success at containing the virus has surprised many observers. Greece is still struggling to recover from a decade of austerity in the wake of the eurozone debt crisis that left hospitals and primary healthcare facilities starved of funds.
The centre-right government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis has called on the expertise offered by Greek public health academics working abroad, while technocrats in his administration have been able to bypass the country’s inefficient bureaucracy to accelerate testing, distribute equipment to hospitals and impose quarantine measures swiftly.
The majority of Greeks have willingly complied with the lockdown so far. An opinion poll published this week showed 80 per cent support for the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The number of new Covid-19 cases has fallen by half in the past week, while fewer patients have been admitted to intensive care units, according to health ministry figures.
But instead of loosening the restrictions, the government this week announced new rules for the Easter weekend. Alongside the ban on family gatherings and spit-roasting in gardens and on apartment balconies, trips to the beach have been prohibited. Church services can only take place behind closed doors with no congregation present. 
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Police are planning strict enforcement over the weekend, including helicopter and drone patrols over Athens and the northern city of Thessaloniki, road blocks at junctions and fines for violating restrictions on movement.
Plainclothes police have been detailed to keep watch at some churches to prevent Orthodox priests from allowing worshippers to participate in Easter services.
Some of the faithful are growing defiant. This week militant Orthodox church members distributed leaflets around provincial cities calling for churches to open for midnight mass on Easter Saturday, the most popular service in the Orthodox calendar.
“Believers like us feel it was wrong to deprive of us of the Easter celebration. We sympathise with the priests and members of our flock who are protesting,” said Aspasia, a shop owner in Lamia, a small city in central Greece.
And protestors gathered on Friday evening outside a closed Orthodox church in an Athens suburb, calling for the parish priest to hold a Good Friday service. Police took 18 people into custody after militant members of the congregation hammered on the church doors and shouted anti-lockdown slogans.
At several other churches around the city, priests allowed worshippers to light candles and kiss icons in defiance of lockdown rules.
Last Sunday, Bishop Nektarios of Corfu, an outspoken opponent of the quarantine measures, invited the mayor and other islanders to join a closed-door service. Priests rarely face legal action, but the bishop will be tried next month on charges of violating the lockdown regulations.
“None of us should be forced to celebrate Easter inside our homes. We are allowed to take exercise outdoors for our physical fitness, why should we not be allowed to attend church for our spiritual health?” the bishop said. 
The government has remained unmoved. “None of us is exempt from keeping to the rules in this battle [against coronavirus],” Nikos Hardalias, the official responsible for overseeing the national lockdown, said.