10 regions shut including Oslo

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Health Minister Bent Høie ordered a new Corona shutdown on Saturday that includes schools, day care centers, restaurants and most all stores including the state liquor monopoly Vinmonopolet in 10 Norwegian municipalities. The shutdown affecting around a million people is aimed at eliminating the new British strain of the Corona virus that’s both highly contagious and possibly more deadly than Covid-19.

Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservative Party had to deal with the latest Corona alarms from his weekend home outside of Oslo. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Høie, speaking via video link from his weekend home near Stavanger, readily branded the new restrictions as the “most invasive” and strictest  since those announced March 12, when the Corona crisis officially hit Norway. They come less than a day after an alarming outbreak of the new virus strain was confirmed in Nordre Follo just south of Oslo, a large area housing 60,000 people who regularly commute to work in Oslo and the surrounding area.

Nordre Follo was quickly shut down and Oslo’s city government leader Raymond Johansen sounded alarms for the Norwegian capital and its entire metropolitan area as well. He and the leaders of other municipalities (kommuner) bordering Nordre Follo all quickly met and agreed that they should impose additional and stronger anti-infection measures as well.

‘Extremely serious situation’
After marathon meetings with state health officials and the government that continued late into Friday night, Health Minister Høie once again went live on national TV Saturday morning to announce all the new restrictions and appeal for public cooperation. “This is an extremely serious situation and we must do everything we can to halt this outbreak,” Høie said as he led off a digital press conference that included the directors of the state public health institute FHI and the state health directorate.

The new measures, in effect from noon Saturday through January 31, affect all the municipalities bordering on or near Nordre Follo in eastern Viken County. They include Oslo, Nesodden, Moss, Vestby, Våler, Ås, Indre Østfold, Frogn and Enebakk in addition to Nordre Follo. Høie noted that there’s always been “high mobility” of people among all these areas, making it necessary to crack down not only in Nordre Follo. Asker and Bærum, located directly west of Oslo were excluded from the crackdown for now, but Bærum has usually adopted Oslo’s Corona rules and regulations and may do so as well. NRK reported that long lines formed quickly outside the Vinmonopolet in Sandvika in Bærum, right after Høie’s address.

Høie said he could only appeal to Norwegians to respect the need for containment measures and not simply drive into Bærum to shop at a Vinmonopolet or eat out. “This is important, not only for the area around Oslo but for the whole country,” Høie said. Otherwise the British strain of the virus can continue to spread, eventually nationwide. “We have a chance now to stop it,” he said, before reading off the list of new restrictions.

All gatherings outside the home will be forbidden, both indoors and outdoors, with the exception of funerals. Høie, backed by state health officials and the local government leaders, also urged strongly against any social visiting or guests at home, with the exception of home health care services. People living alone may receive or visit one or two close friends or family members in one household, while children can visit with those in their own cohorts from day care or elementary school.

Residents of the 10 municipalities involved were also urged against any travel outside their own community unless it was strictly necessary. Public transport capacity is expected to be cut by 50 percent, with face masks mandatory also before entering a taxi. Prime Minister Erna Solberg later issued a statement also urging residents of the 10 communities involved against traveling to their hytter (holiday homes).

Businesses involving one-to-one operations such as hair salons and physiotherapy can stay open on the condition that face masks are used when it’s not possible to maintain distance of at least a meter. Officials also urged reducing treatment times.

Stores and shopping centers were ordered to close, including Vinmonopolet, from January 23-31, with the exception of grocery stores, pharmacies and gasoline stations. Bars, restaurants and cafés have been told to close, but take-away food will be allowed

Schools and day care centers have been moved to the “red alert” status, meaning that local officials can close them depending on infection risk. High schools will be ordered to revert to mostly digital instruction while universities, colleges and trade schools will be closed and ordered to offer only digital instruction. All classroom instruction and planned events over the next two weeks must be postponed.

Other institutions ordered to close: Exercise centers, all public swimming pools and spas, churches and all religious centers, libraries, museums, bingo parlors, bowling alleys, amusement parks and other places used for recreational activity, cinemas, theaters and concert venues.

Høie expressed repeated gratitude to local officials for their quick coordination of rules and regulations and for their cooperation, after the new virus mutation appeared first at a nursing home in Nordre Follo and then spread to a day care center. He said that 17 new cases were confirmed on Friday alone, prompting the need for a rapid response.

“I know that this will lead to demanding days for many, and that many people face more uncertain times ahead,” Høie said, “but we’re doing what we can to stop this outbreak with powerful measures, so that we can quickly gain control and then ease the most invasive.”

“Together we have managed to beat back infection many times, and together we can do it again.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund