“We really hoped we were finished with the pandemic now, and hoped Christmas could be like normal,” began Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre at another press conference Tuesday night, “but we’re now in a situation with infection that’s so serious that we have to impose new restrictions.” It was, he suggested, like being sent back to “Start” on a Monopoly board, and beginning all over again.
The bottom line is that infection levels in Norway are now so high that there’s real danger of over-burdening the country’s national health system. Hospitals have already been postponing scheduled operations because of a lack of intensive care capacity, and health care workers are exhausted, without no reserve staff waiting in the wings to take over.
Then came the new Omicron strain, the threat of which was described as “enormous” by Dr Camilla Stoltenberg, head of Norway’s public health institute FHI. She also warned that there’s “all reason to believe that the highly contagious Omicron has already spread around the country” after it’s spectacular debut in Oslo last week.
So, from midnight Wednesday, Norwegians will need to put up with a fairly long list of reimposed restrictons. They’re mostly all based on renewed needs for social distancing and limiting social contact.
“The one-meter rule is back,” Støre declared. Anyone who can’t stay at least a meter away from anyone other than members of their own households must wear a face mask.
Then came lots of limits on the numbers of people allowed to gather for various events: Støre doesn’t want anyone to invite more than 10 guests into their home over the next four weeks. The only exception is that 20 can visit on just one day during the holidays (for example either Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve) but only if there’s enough room to meet the one-meter rule.
Only 20 people will be allowed at any private gatherings arranged in public places, such as rented party locations. All serving of alcohol must cease at midnight in bars and restaurants nationwide.
Social gatherings in connection with funerals will be limited to 50 participants. Gymnasiums and exercise studios will be limited to 20 people as well. Sporting events seemed to be shielded from the restrictions as long as they’re held outdoors. Støre also encouraged social contact to take place outdoors, otherwise there a limit of 50 participants at any public events without assigned seating, and limits of three groups of 200 people at, for example, cultural events with assigned seating but with demands of two meters between cohorts.
The rules are complicated and it now seems to be up to event organizers to figure them out and act accordingly. Questions remain about how or whether already sold-out Christmas concerts, for example, will be able to proceed or whether they’ll be cancelled.
In case of the latter, which seems likely, Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum claimed state compensation would be made available but details of how new compensation programs will work were unavailable. Many producers and organizers were bracing for the worst.
The goal of all this, Støre insisted, is to avoid an actual shutdown. Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues can now remain open, but on the condition they can provide for social distancing and only serve food and drink to patrons seated at tables. They’ll also need to register all guests in case infection tracking becomes necessary.
Schools and day care centers can also remain open, at least initially, but also under various conditions that include social distancing and regular testing in classrooms, for example. They may need to revert to the “traffic light system,” with levels of green, yellow and red tied to their individual infection situation. Colleges and universities must prepare for more digital instruction, employers must allow use of home offices and provide for one-meter distancing among workers.
“The measures we’re imposing now are meant to halt the spread of Omicron,” Health Minister Ingvild Kjerkol said. “We don’t know if Omicron will increase hospital admissions, but these measures can give us time to gather more knowledge about Omicron and to vaccinate even more people.”
Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen said he backed the new national restrictions, but made it clear that no place in Norway will suffer more from them than Oslo. The economic consequences for bar and restaurant owners, for example, are huge, he claimed, because their business can be cut in half during the most important party season of the year.
Cancellations of large parties had already been flowing in, though, because of all the uncertainty. Some theater owners seemed to welcome the new measures and the possibility of at least performing for up to 600 people instead of none at all. Vedum said he recognized a need for the government “to step in economically for companies and their employees” who’ll be hurt by this. “We’re trying to make it easier to keep the wheels turning,” Vedum said.
Dr Stoltenberg, however, cautioned that health care officials remain deeply worried about Omicron. “Up to now, there are no signs that the variant will result in more serious illness, but not milder either,” she said. “We can hope for the best, but we know too little not to prepare for the worst.”
All of the government’s new restrictions come at the recommendation of Stoltenberg, her colleagues at the public health institute and those at the state health directorate. Støre and Kjerkol contend they’re mostly just following professional advice, in an effort to give people and companies some guidance and support.
Opposition politicians weren’t impressed, with the Progress Party claiming that Vedum’s compensation proposals were “too weak” given the toll the restrictions will take on businesses. The Liberal Party’s leader Guri Melby also complained that the government appeared unprepared for the severity of the infection situation now. She also misses a new “credible plan for how we’re supposed to live with this virus.”
Oslo Mayor Johansen noted that the capital’s restaurant and bar industry is already “bleeding” and must receive compensation to prevent bankruptcies. Creo, which represents artists and the culture sector, called the restrictions “a catastrophe for cultural life” and claimed the entire branch was once again “being thrown out into a more uncertainty.” Creo leader Hans Ole Rian wishes the government, instead of imposing the one-meter rule, would rather start using so-called Corona passes that could screen members of the public and allow in those who are fully vaccinated.