The government on Thursday extended a state of emergency in Armenia by another month while lifting the last remaining restrictions on business activity which were aimed at containing the coronavirus epidemic.
The state of emergency was declared on March 16. A few days later, the government also issued stay-at-home orders and closed most nonessental businesses. The lockdown was largely lifted by May 4 despite increased numbers of new coronavirus cases reported by the Armenian health authorities on a daily basis.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian insisted that the government still needs the state of emergency in order to be able to quickly seal off local communities hit by COVID-19 outbreaks and take other extraordinary measures against the virus. He said it may also decide to re-impose lockdown restrictions if the spread of the disease continues unabated.
“If it turns out that we have more than 1,500 [COVID-19] patients in need of medical treatment [in hospital] -- and we are inevitably approaching that number and will surpass it -- we will have no choice but to revert to the restrictions regime,” Pashinian told a weekly cabinet meeting in Yerevan.
In his words, only some 600 of the more than 2,200 people presently infected with the virus are showing major symptoms and treated in hospitals.
According to the Ministry of Health, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Armenia rose by 142 to 3,860 in the past 24 hours. The ministry also reported another fatality which brought the official death toll from the disease to 49.
The figure does not include the deaths of 21 other individuals infected with COVID-19. The ministry claims that they died as a result of other, pre-existing conditions.
Deputy Prime Minister Tigran Avinian, the government’s “commandant” in charge of enforcing emergency rule, announced later in the day that starting from May 25 the authorities will make it mandatory for everyone to wear a face mask in the streets and other public spaces. “Those who violate the rule will be fined by the police,” he told the Armenian parliament.
Armenians are currently required to wear masks as well as gloves only when entering shops, banks and other businesses. There is ample evidence of widespread non-compliance with this requirement.
Avinian also said that the government has decided to lift next Monday its ban on public transport in Yerevan and other urban centers and to reopen kindergartens, shopping malls, indoor restaurants and cafes and gyms. He made no mention of schools and universities that were also shut down in March.
Pashinian has repeatedly stated in recent weeks that ordinary citizens must share with their government “responsibility” for containing epidemic by practicing physical distancing, not touching their faces with unwashed hands and using only clean tableware. He again complained on Thursday that many of them are still not taking coronavirus seriously.
The prime minister also stressed the importance of a “very strict” enforcement of government restrictions by the Armenian police and other state bodies.
“We had a discussion with the police chief on this topic yesterday,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are not sure that the restrictions that were previously imposed by the office of the [state of emergency] commandant were enforced strictly enough.”
Critics of the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis say the lax enforcement is a key reason why the virus has continued to spread rapidly in the country. They also say that the lockdown was all but lifted too soon.