Italy, Greece relax COVID-19 restrictions just in time for tourist season
ROME — For travelers heading to Europe, summer vacations just got a whole lot easier.
Italy and Greece relaxed some COVID-19 restrictions on Sunday before Europe's peak summer tourist season, in a sign that life was increasingly returning to normal.
Greece's civil aviation authority announced that it was lifting all COVID-19 rules for international and domestic flights except for the wearing of face masks during flights and at airports. Previously, air travelers were required to show proof of vaccination, a negative test or a recent recovery from the disease.
As of Sunday, visitors to Italy no longer have to fill out the EU passenger locator form, a complicated online ordeal required at airport check-in.
Italy also did away with the health pass that had been required to enter restaurants, cinemas, gyms and other venues. The green pass, which showed proof of vaccination, recovery from the virus or a recent negative test, is still required to access hospitals and nursing homes.
.Some indoor mask mandates in Italy also ended, including inside supermarkets, workplaces and stores. Masks are still required on public transport, in cinemas and in all health care facilities and nursing homes.
"It was needed," said Claudio Civitelli, a Rome resident having his morning coffee at a bar near the Trevi Fountain. Until Sunday, patrons had to wear a mask to enter bars and restaurants, though they could remove them to eat and drink. "We have waited more than two years."
At a nearby table, Andrea Bichler, an Italian tourist from Trentino Alto-Adige, sat with friends, all without masks.
"It's much better," Bichler said. "Let's say it's a return to life, a free life."
In Greece, where tourism accounts for about 20% of its GNP, enforcing the rules had already fallen off prior to Sunday. On the tourist island of Mykonos, revelers flooded beaches, bars and restaurant the previous weekend for the Orthodox Easter holiday. Some owners said business was the best they had seen in years and expected that to continue for the long May Day weekend.
Vaccination certificates in Greece were abolished, not permanently, but from May 1 to August 31 and it will be determined in August whether to bring them back. Also suspended were restrictions on the number of customers in indoor spaces. But masks are still required indoors and in vehicles in Greece, and experts recommend using them outdoors in crowded situations like concerts.
Business owners said many unvaccinated people were among those enjoying the end of COVID-19 restrictions.
"We saw again old customers whom we hadn't seen since November," when vaccination certificates first became mandatory, Michalis Epitropidis, general secretary of the association of restaurant, cafe and bar owners in Thessaloniki, told the Associated Press. "By punishing the unvaccinated, the state was punishing us."
Thessaloniki, Greece's second-largest city, was a hotbed of militant vaccine denialism and protests against COVID-19 restrictions.
Like Italy, Greece saw tourism revenues plunge in 2020 and only partially rebound in 2021. Greece is now hoping for a record tourism year in 2022 — and so does neighboring Albania, where restrictions were also lifted Sunday.
Public health officials say masks still remain highly recommended in Italy for all indoor activities, and private companies can still require them.
Given that the virus is still circulating, "we should keep up the vaccine campaign, including boosters, and keep up behavior inspired by prudence: wearing masks indoors or in crowded places or wherever there's a risk of contagion," said Dr. Giovanni Rezza, in charge of prevention at the health ministry.