It’s impossible to change a culture basically overnight. Full disclosure: I lived and worked in Japan, and from time to time, mask wearing at work was a requirement. I hated wearing it. I hated being told to wear it. As an American with zero exposure to mask wearing (at the time), I thought it was stupid. It’s possible that an overwhelming majority of Portuguese feel the same way about the current health protocols in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In observing the streets of Porto* since the start of June, I’ve noticed that many people are mask-free. Several older people are wearing masks with their noses completely exposed. In socialising around town, I’ve experienced a true lack of understanding of how to appropriately socially distance. The Portuguese are used to occupying each other’s space, touching, laughing and greeting each other with besitos. It’s not that people don’t want to be safe for themselves and their families; simply, this practice is foreign and strange, and many people (especially the young) still don’t understand the risks.
To a certain extent, why should they? Most cases are asymptomatic. Infection numbers in Porto and the North have abated. Porto’s testing rate continues apace, and even includes drive-thru testing, the first established in the country. Wearing a mask sucks. Socially distancing sucks. Why continue to be so vigilant when it conflicts with your established culture? Sadly, this very normal way of thinking continues to contribute to increased infection numbers (particularly in Lisbon).
As recently as June 18, 2020, the Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, spoke with CNN Travel to exclaim that Portugal is ‘safe for tourists’; however, as of June 26, 2020, the infection hotspot continues to be Lisbon, with the majority of new cases arising in and around the capital. This trend has led some countries (i.e. Denmark, Austria) to question the Portuguese ‘miracle’, and as borders have opened, they’ve simply refused entry to Portuguese visitors. The response from the Portuguese government has been swift. Recent communications from the PM’s office indicate that the authorities are necessarily continuing to impose restrictions on several businesses deriving their main livelihood from tourism. Obviously, early closing times don’t allow tourists and locals alike to ‘party in the street’ in typical Portuguese fashion.
With borders between Spain and Portugal opening on July 1, bookings for holiday makers from all around Europe are on the up. In fact, we are reaching an extremely significant date in the re-opening of Portugal, and in support of her quest to ‘save the summer’ and capture a percentage of that 10% of GDP dependent upon tourism. The question remains whether this very important opportunity to prevent economic meltdown will either bring a much-needed boon to the economy, or inflate infection numbers in a way that increases the risks of a ‘safe’ economic recovery.
The ‘pool’ is open; let’s pray the water’s fine.
*Author's Note: As of June 23, 2020, Porto had not reported any newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection for 20 days.