It’s not normal for the metro platform at Oslo’s busy National Theater station to be almost empty on a Tuesday during the Christmas holiday season. Another rash of Corona-related restrictions aimed at reducing record-high infection levels, though, quickly reduced the numbers of people out and about, spoiling an otherwise festive time of the year.
There were also lots of empty seats on board the metro (T-bane). There were few customers roaming around the Norwegian capital’s annual Christmas market set up for the season in the heart of downtown. Restaurants and bars were visibly shutting down to comply with new rules issued the night before, although some were gamely trying to attract lunch customers before a midnight ban on serving alcohol takes effect from midnight. That would cut deeply into revenues if they tried to stay open.
“I had hoped we could keep operating at least through the end of this week,” Bent Stiansen, chef at the Michelin-starred Statholdergaarden restaurant in Oslo, told state broadcaster NRK. His restaurant has been fully booked every night, with the important income generated during the holiday season sustaining lots of restaurant owners like him through the winter.
“I’m frustrated and uncertain,” Stiansen said, adding that he was most worried about his employees and what kind of compensation they’ll get when they’re all forced out of work again.
At least Norwegians seemed to once again be obediently going along with the government’s new rules and recommendations. That’s important, given lots of concern lately that the public was losing faith in their new political leaders, and even in the health professionals guiding them. All have commanded high levels of public confidence in Norway, but the past several weeks have been full of a constant stream of steadily tightening regulations and what many complain have been mixed signals.
Oslo Mayor Raymond Johansen, for example, was encouraging Oslo residents to keep going out on the town and attending julebord (Christmas parties), until the new Omicron strain of the Corona virus spread like wildfire through one company party and infected more than 100 people at a popular Oslo restaurant. Then most all julebord were cancelled, but residents were still urged to keep living life as normally as possible. Neither Johansen, who ended up testing positive for Omicron himself, nor Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre wanted to hurt the important hotel, restaurant and entertainment business.
“It’s no wonder people got confused,” Professor Kjell Sverre Pettersen at Oslo Metropolitan University told newspaper Dagsavisen. “What were we supposed to do when FHI (the public health institute) was also contradicting itself? One day they’d say one thing, the next day something else.”
There were also conflicting reports coming out of the state health directorate, with leaders blaming much of it on a lack of information about the new Omicron strain. State Health Director Bjørn Guldvog said the uncertainty around the virus was suddenly higher than it had been in March 2020, when the pandemic first came to Norway.
Then came reports late last week from the health authorities that public confidence in them was falling. They monitor it themselves, and their latest weekly report showed that public confidence in how Norway’s leaders were handling the Corona crisis had fallen to 65 percent during the first week of December. That compared to 83 percent in September, when Norway opened up again. By mid-November it had fallen, though, to 77 percent.
“It’s worrisome,” editorialized newspaper Aftenposten, “because relations between the authorities and the people mean so much for the battle against the virus.” The paper noted how Norwegians had listened and followed the advice of the authorities when they had to impose the most invasive measures since World War II last year. Now most everyone is weary of living under Corona, and then the rules kept changing and got so detailed this autumn that many struggled to keep up. The mixed signals that confused them also prompted some to yearn for clear marching orders instead of having to decide for themselves if it was safe to go to a party or rowdy bar.
Støre had to ‘do something’
With infection numbers soaring and hospital intensive care units filling up, though, Støre had to act this week and reinstate some of the toughest rules that have now plunged Norway back into a partial shutdown. Omicron, both Guldvog and Støre have said, is the “game changer” behind the new crackdown.
While many Norwegians are bitterly disappointed over the damper on holiday cheer, others are relieved to have some clear guidance again and are visibly following orders to wear face masks in all public places, avoid public transportation and reduce their social contact. Everyone is being urged to work from home again and basically stay home for the next four weeks. Normal midday crowds in downtown Oslo the very next day were already thinned.
“It’s sad,” restaurant chef Stiansen told NRK as he prepared for the last evening his restaurant can be open until mid-January. “Our guests will get a fine experience, and then we’ll follow orders to close.”