Iceland, an early coronavirus role model, closes bars and gyms as cases rise

The country, home to about 360,000 people, has recorded fewer than 3,000 cases of the novel coronavirus.

Ten people have died on the island after contracting the virus. But in the past two weeks, it has seen around 156 domestic cases per 100,000 residents, and officials worry the number of new infections will continue to rise.

“The epidemic is still growing,” state epidemiologist Porolfur Gudnason said Monday, as reported by Icelandic news site Kjarninn.

Icelandic officials on Monday also voiced concern over a growing number of people testing positive for the virus who had not previously been identified as having been exposed to it — a first indication the country’s contact tracing system may be starting to buckle under the strain of new cases.

Iceland’s tracing program, implemented earlier this year, earned praise early in the pandemic, alongside an ambitious testing plan, in which the country teamed up with a biotechnology company to offer free tests for anyone who wanted them.

Earlier than many other governments, Iceland vowed to ensure paid leave for anyone forced to self-quarantine or self-isolate.

In March, the Icelandic Confederation of Labour announced “employees of private companies will not have to use their sick leave entitlements” if they self-isolate and will continue to receive their salaries.

“It is not acceptable for anyone to be in uncertainty about their income in a situation like this,” Drifa Snaedal, the president of the labor confederation, said at the time.

By May, cases were so few that the country reopened bars and gyms.

The country’s strategy appeared to pay off — the number of daily new cases largely hovered in the single digits this summer.

As with New Zealand, Iceland’s remote location could have enabled the country to effectively stamp out the virus. But with tourism accounting for around 8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product before the pandemic, it reopened its borders to many European and some other travelers over the summer.

At least some of Iceland’s recent cases have been linked to tourism. State epidemiologist Gudnason recently blamed two French travelers — who both tested positive for the virus but did not self-isolate in mid-August — for a cluster of about 100 coronavirus cases on the island, the Guardian reported.

The two travelers had visited several crowded spaces, including a pub and a restaurant in the capital, Reykjavik.

Iceland’s restrictions come as new measures to curb the spread of the virus are also imposed in other parts of Europe, with bars and nightlife activities in particular facing mounting scrutiny.

Paris announced Monday that, starting Tuesday, the capital will shut all bars for at least two weeks amid a spike in coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, one of Germany’s 16 federal states is requiring travelers from several Berlin districts to self-quarantine, after infections linked to parties or crowded events in enclosed spaces surged there in recent weeks.

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