Sunday, May 3, 2020

Getting Restless in Lockdown: Greece, About to Emerge

My cotton mask would not stay on, and my glasses fogged up. It was the day after the Greek government recommended wearing masks and the first time I’d tried to do it. I’ll need to adjust the straps. It’s hard to shop while maintaining an appropriate social distance if my mask is falling down.

I’d put it on to shop at the small produce store in our village, where there were no directions for staying away from people in the narrow aisles between the bins of apples, pears, strawberries, greens, peppers, and tomatoes. As usual, I went during Greece’s naptime to avoid crowds, so there were only two other customers to dodge.

At the bakery two doors down, a sign directs customers to remain 1.5 meters from each other, so people sometimes wait in line to enter the limited space between the breadsticks, cookies, and cakes. I had to ask if the multigrain loaf I wanted was available, since the fresh breads previously displayed on shelves have now disappeared into individual paper bags.

A note requested that money be placed on a small plate near the outer edge of the counter by the cash register. The cashier, my neighbor, asked how my teens are doing at home—one of the most common questions these days, after “how are you”? Distracted by my mask, I forgot to thank her and the produce cashier for continuing their essential work so those of us working from home can buy our bread and fruit. 

We have no shortages here in Crete, unless you count patience, as we grow tired of being (more or less) homebound and struggling with inadequate internet connections and technical problems with limited online learning. Not to complain: healthy people with comfortable homes and still-sufficient family incomes in Greece have little right to do so.

So far, the country has done well in limiting the spread of the novel coronavirus—except, perhaps, among refugees and Roma. Very limited testing makes it hard to understand the whole picture, but COVID-19 death rates and intensive care cases remain impressively low, especially compared with neighboring Italy.

We hope that will continue as the country begins to open up in the coming week. That is supposed to happen gradually, with masks recommended and social distancing still required. In addition to the supermarkets, bakeries, produce stores, and pharmacies that stayed open, some other stores and hairdressers will admit limited numbers of customers starting May 4, for the first time since March 13.

Swimming in the sea will be permitted again (but not at “organized” beaches), and permission slips or SMS notifications to the government will no longer be required when we leave our homes for exercise or essential activities. Schools will remain closed until May 11 (for high school seniors) and May 18 (for other junior and senior high school students). More stores and sites will also open in May—if all goes well.

In my Cretan neighborhood, I’ve sensed a gradual slackening of vigilance for some time. However, compliance with strict social distancing measures and closures has reportedly been widespread in Greece—perhaps because of the fines for noncompliance. As we begin the transition from “stay home” to “stay safe” tomorrow, I hope sensible caution will continue to prevail here, justifying the surprised articles in international publications that praise Greeks for their wise patience in the time of COVID-19.  

Based in Crete, Greece, American writer and editor Lisa Radinovsky is currently seeking new employment opportunities. You can find out more about her on LinkedIn and contact her at

Shopping in Greek Stores during the COVID-19 Lockdown

The first time I went to one of our Cretan village’s supermarkets in April, I had to wait while two people in front of me were given the numbered entry tickets that limited store occupancy and the flimsy disposable plastic gloves that made it hard to use our hands. The next time I went, the gloves were there, but no longer required; the numbers were still mandatory.

Wearing a mask and tight rubber gloves like most employees, the produce clerk appreciated my patience and gratitude while she disinfected the counter and scale before weighing my avocadoes. She said many customers were neither patient nor careful, which disturbed her for both their sakes and hers. The full-time, permanent supermarket employees have been working longer hours to try to meet consumer demand while avoiding overcrowding. 

Red circles on the floor near checkout indicate appropriate social distancing while waiting in line at the supermarket. Behind plexiglass but without a mask, the cheerful checkout clerk was not too worried, even when I asked about her brother in northern Italy. She told me he’s staying inside and hopes to come to Greece this summer, if flights are running.

At Greece’s naptime, that supermarket has been about as empty of people as I’ve ever seen it. On the other hand, almost all the shelves are generally full. There were some gaps on the paper towel and pasta shelves one day, but still a wide selection of products, and there has been plenty of toilet paper. Apparently, Greeks are not as obsessed with toilet paper as Americans.

Notices by the antiseptic wipes limited them to one pack per customer, although there was a large pile of the wipes. We have not always been able to find hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol, but everything else on my list has been there. I don’t understand why the store shelves on a Greek island should be full, while so many of America’s are empty. Less panic in Greece? More family gardens, orchards, olive groves, and handy livestock, and more interest and faith in the fresh products they provide?

I suspect that there is more personal protective equipment per capita here than in the U.S., too. Before the middle of April, the pharmacy had both a plexiglass shield between customers and employees, and gowns, masks, and gloves on the pharmacist and her assistants. I have seen no one wearing homemade masks so far. At least in my part of Crete, there was only a fleeting mask shortage when our lockdown began. We’ll see if demand grows, and the supply disappears, as we emerge from lockdown.