Norway’s northern island community of Træna was caught in conflict at home this week, after local officials banned all municipal employees from leaving the islands between now and April 13. Several objected and now lawyers are getting involved.
Træna, known for its annual summer music festival as well as its scenic location on the Arctic Circle, is part of the coastal Helgeland region that’s been particularly strict in dealing with the Corona virus. Many municipalities in Helgeland and elsewhere in Northern Norway have imposed 14-day quarantines on all arrivals from south of their county border to Trøndelag, causing trouble for businesses and employees who commute over municipal borders and sparking rebukes from state officials.
Træna’s borders extend over open sea around 60 kilometers from the mainland, with its islands connected to others via ferries. Fully 100 of its roughly 400 permanent residents are employed by the local kommune (township), and many received a shock after a meeting of its Corona crisis team on Sunday.
None of them, they were told, are currently allowed to leave Træna’s three populated islands. “The travel ban is in effect until April 13,” Træna’s top administrative official Liv-Hege Martinussen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
“The alternative was to completely close the border,” she added, attributing the ban to fears that island residents could wind up infected by the Corona virus. “We landed on a slightly less-invasive measure.”
Not “less-invasive” enough for several employees who reacted negatively to the loss of their freedom of movement. “I feel like this measure is quite invasive into people’s private lives,” Kristine Monsen, a teacher at Træna’s school who’s among those suddenly prevented from leaving, told NRK. She thinks Martinussen and other local officials are taking Corona concerns too far.
“I don’t know whether such strict measures were even put in place during World War II,” she said. “We are responsible adults who know what times we’re living in.” Monsen said she felt she and her colleagues were being “degraded” by being stripped of the right to be responsible for their own lives.
“If I worked in the private sector, I could move around as long as I followed the quarantine rules that apply,” added Monsen, who’s a member of the local community council representing the Labour Party. She also objects to the ban in principle, and told NRK that several public sector employees affected by it have complained to their labour organizations and are seeking legal advice.
Worried about Easter trips
Martinussen said local officials “are afraid that people will head off on Easter holidays and come back with Corona infection.” That would hit the community hard.
“We’re located far out at sea, and don’t have anyone who can come and help us,” she said. “We don’t have any police and only our own fire brigade. We have just one doctor, few nurses and several vulnerable elderly people at a nursing home.” Some island communities in Nordland have considered mass evacuations in the case of a virus outbreak.
Martinussen noted that if Træna’s lone grocery store had to close, “we wouldn’t have access to food either.” She stressed that exceptions to the travel ban can be made if it’s absolutely essential for someone to leave the islands.
Attorney Linn Tjensvold doesn’t think Træna officials have a legal right to refuse to allow employees from leaving the islands, since it extends into employees’ time off from work. “We’re working on a legal response to this from the kommune,” Tjensvold told NRK. It’s also unclear how island officials intend to enforce the ban. “Will they fire anyone who leaves the community without permission?” mused Tjensvold. “Will they give them a warning? It’s unnatural for an employer to impose such restrictions on people.”
Health care workers at Oslo University Hospital have also been slapped with travel restrictions, but only from traveling outside Norway. Since most countries have travel restrictions in place, however, few if any Norwegians are leaving the country at present.