Armenian authorities reported the largest daily number of coronavirus deaths to date on Monday as the vast majority of Armenia’s businesses, including many cafes and restaurants, resumed their work following the end of a nationwide lockdown imposed in late March.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian defended on Sunday his government’s decision to lift remaining restrictions on people’s movements and reopen virtually all sectors of the Armenian economy despite the continuing spread of coronavirus in the country. He declared that the onus is now not only on his government but also on ordinary Armenians to contain the virus.
“We are announcing a new, decentralized phase of the fight against the novel coronavirus,” Pashinian said during a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian and Health Minister Arsen Torosian.
“The main reason why we are opting for such a solution is that it’s now obvious that we will have new coronavirus cases at least until March or April next year, until a vaccine is developed,” he said. “Therefore, our challenge starting from tomorrow is to do everything … so that we can live with coronavirus, rather than be locked down, because we cannot stay shut down for one year.”
“The most important nuance of the decentralized struggle is that every citizen of Armenia will shoulder responsibility for the fight against the epidemic,” added Pashinian.
The premier renewed his calls for citizens to strictly follow social distancing rules and avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands.
He admitted that the decision to essentially end the lockdown is “creating the risk” of a faster spread of the virus.
The Armenian Ministry of Health has already reported increased daily numbers of coronavirus cases for the last two weeks. It said on Monday morning that 121 people have tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours, taking the country’s COVID-19 total to 2,507.
The ministry also said that four more Armenians have died from the virus, the largest daily increase in fatalities reported so far. The country’s death toll from COVID-19 thus reached 39.
According to Torosian, 35 COVID-19 patients were in a critical condition as of Sunday afternoon.
“We can manage 3,000 to 4,000 cases,” the health minister told Pashinian. “Right now we have 850 patients in hospitals and about 350 others [isolated] in hotels. Our objective is … to not exceed the maximum [hospital capacity] and not have to provide medical assistance in non-hospital conditions.”
Torosian repeatedly warned last week that the health authorities will soon be no longer able to hospitalize or isolate all infected persons. He said this will increase the risk of further growth in infections.
Avinian, who leads an ad hoc government body enforcing a coronavirus-related state of emergency in Armenia, said on Sunday that the government could again issue stay-at-home orders and shut down most businesses “in case of a deterioration of the situation.”
Pashinian did not mention such a possibility when he met with Avinian and Torosian later in the day. He claimed that the government has no choice but to end the lockdown which it imposed on March 24.
“If we were sure that we could defeat the epidemic after another month of the toughest lockdown we could opt for such a solution,” said the prime minister. “But we have concluded that this is not realistic and possible. Our statistics of the last two months shows that.”
Critics say that the authorities never strictly enforced the quarantine and began easing restrictions on business activity already on April 13, just three weeks after the start of the economic shutdown. The number of daily coronavirus cases rose significantly later in April amid a gradual reopening of more sectors of the Armenian economy.
With its latest measure which took effect on Monday, the government lifted its ban on all remaining all types of manufacturing, services such as hairdressing and cleaning, and wholesale trade carried out outside shopping malls. Those cafes and restaurants that have outdoor areas were also allowed to reopen.
Other restaurants as well as bars, night clubs and shopping malls will remain closed for the time being. The government is also in no rush to resume public transport services in Yerevan and other cities.
All reopened businesses have to comply with safety requirements set by the Ministry of Health. In particular, employers must ensure physical distancing among their workers and customers, frequently disinfect premises, provide employees with hand sanitizers and measure their temperature on a daily basis. Those who have a fever must immediately leave their workplace and seek medical aid.
Wearing face masks and gloves is obligatory for only some categories of employees, notably waiters.