NIght out in Moscow: few masks and many shrugs at rising coronavirus cases

That morning, Russia had announced more than 12,000 new confirmed coronavirus cases in the past day — a record increase for the country with the world’s fourth-largest number of cases. Then, on Tuesday, Russia set a record for daily deaths from the coronavirus with 244. On Wednesday, it was 239 deaths linked to the virus, and 14,200 new cases.

The autumn spike in infections in Russia had seemed inevitable. After a two-month spring lockdown with strict restrictions, there were practically no constraints over the summer. With the long Russian winter ahead, the prevailing mood in Moscow, at least, is to shrug off the coronavirus anxieties for now and take what comes.

Mask requirements exist, but they’re rarely observed or enforced. While some establishments do temperature checks at the door, there’s no social distancing inside or limits on capacity.

The question I’m asked most often when catching up with friends and family in the United States: How has life in Moscow changed due to the coronavirus? This summer, my response has been that I often feel like I’m living in an alternate reality from them. Maskless Moscow feels strangely normal.

Exhibit A: I went to the Black Sea resort city of Sochi last month for a vacation, and every single seat on the flight was occupied. Some passengers wore masks, but others didn’t — and weren’t asked to mask up by flight attendants.

It’s not that the pandemic has spared Russia. Just the opposite. But many Russians I encounter simply aren’t that concerned about contracting the virus.

What year is this?

I joined two friends on their regular Friday night bar crawl to get a sense of the carry-on-like-it’s-2019 mood in Moscow.

At Mendeleev, I met Valeria Varinik, who described the Russian mentality to the coronavirus like this: “This is going to sound bad, but I’ve heard a lot of people just say that if you’re meant to be sick, then you will be, and if you’re not, then you won’t be.”

Moscow’s government has so far responded to this rise in infections with mild restrictions, asking citizens over the age of 65 to stay home and for companies to transfer at least 30 percent of their employees to remote work. Schools have also switched back to distance learning.

But officials have been hesitant to even discuss the possibility of again closing nonessential businesses, likely fearing a public backlash. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, who took the lead on imposing stay-at-home measures in the spring, even came up with his own interpretations to avoid the “second wave” label.

“There is no second coronavirus wave because a second wave comes when those who have already recovered from the infection fall ill again. We don’t see anything like that,” he told state television earlier this month.

With many Russians forced to self-isolate in April and May, President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating plummeted to a 20-year low of 59 percent, according to a May poll by the independent Levada Center. It has climbed back up 10 points in the four months since, when restrictions largely existed in name only. Perhaps not coincidentally, Russia lifted nearly all of its restrictions just before a nationwide July 1 vote on constitutional amendments that could keep Putin in power until 2036.

Mask on, mask off

My friends said Mendeleev wasn’t handing its patrons masks the week before. As we were leaving, the people entering were also being handed gloves by the bouncer. In late September, Tsum, Moscow’s flagship luxury goods department store, was fined $13,000 for failing to make its visitors wear masks.

“If the government had done like countries in Europe and actually enforced restrictions from the beginning, maybe there wouldn’t have been a second wave,” said Evgeniy Evdokimov, who works at Brodo Bar and Kitchen, our third stop that Friday night. “Maybe this is just the Russian mentality, but we need measures to be strict or we won’t follow them.”

“The virus itself isn’t as scary as this situation we find ourselves in where we don’t know what’s going on, or if there’ll be another lockdown after months of nothing,” he added.

Evdokimov then asked me and my friends a question. Had we, in the past three months, witnessed a police officer tell a single person on public transportation to put on a mask or fine someone for not wearing one? We all shook our heads, though we’ve all seen Metro cars full of maskless individuals.

My observation was that masks are largely treated like a formality here. It’s something you wear to get through the door of a store, for example — and even that would be considered strict by Russian standards. Then many people just take them off or push them below their chin. 

To financially survive the spring lockdown, Evdokimov said he had three jobs, sticking on price tags at a convenience store in the mornings, delivering food in the afternoons and then working as a copywriter for a YouTube channel in the evenings.

Evdokimov said he didn’t receive any state support. If there’s another lockdown, he figures he might have to temporarily move home to St. Petersburg.

In the meantime, business has been good. Evdokimov and others on that Friday night said it feels as if Moscow’s nightlife scene is livelier now than it was before the pandemic.

“I basically expected that,” said Khaustev, the bartender at Mendeleev. “I remember the first weekend bars opened, it was packed, and it was just nice to look people in the eye again and see how happy they were to be out of the house. We told them to keep half a meter apart, but they were just happy to be out again.”

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