Russians hurried to bars for a final taste of freedom, while others packed their swimsuits to escape for seaside holidays, as Moscow braced for a fresh coronavirus lockdown that began at midnight last night.
The crush in the capital’s drinking establishments came even as Russia faces a devastating fourth wave of the Covid-19 epidemic, posting record-high numbers of deaths.
Just in the past 24 hours Russia reported over 40,000 new cases and 1,159 fatalities.
The numbers are so alarming – while the nationwide vaccination level is at just 35 per cent – that the Moscow City Hall has gone back on its promise not to shut down the city again after the capital’s first and only major lockdown last spring.
All businesses have been ordered to stay closed at least until 7 November except for pharmacies, grocery shops or any stores selling essential goods. Theatres and museums, however, have been allowed to stay open for a limited number of vaccinated visitors.
Moscow, famed for its party-loving, devil-may-care spirit, marked the start of the ten-day lockdown with a bang: bars and restaurants were all booked out, with revelers spilling out into the streets with their cigarettes and drinks.
It was well before 10 pm when a basement bar just off Moscow’s glitziest street ran out of beer on Wednesday. Parties in the city traditionally continue into the early hours.
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Szputnyik, a low-key bar in a 19th century mansion, opened earlier this year and only got its alcohol license a few weeks ago, so the lockdown for them is particularly harsh.
Dmitry Urusov, a bartender, said they didn’t expect so many people.
“All of them came here to support us,” Mr Usurov told the Telegraph.
“I wouldn’t call it a feast in time of plague but I’d like people to be more conscious about things. We’re all vaccinated here, and I’m calling on others to be responsible, too.”
Not all pre-lockdown parties ended well: Moscow police this morning reported that a bartender at another drinking hole beat up a police squad with a chair after they showed up to check compliance with the lockdown that began at midnight.
Moscow’s perennial traffic jams in the final days before the lockdown were somewhat reminiscent of a Christmas-time rush hour as residents were out for last-minute errands and shopping: Moscow officials reported a 20 percent surge in retail sales.
Many of those not partying on Wednesday were busy packing for their lockdown getaway.
Within hours of the lockdown announcement last week, Muscovites rushed to buy up cheap tickets and package tours to the seaside.
“It’s hard to say how big of a rush it was but we saw searches for plane tickets shoot up by 79 per cent right after the announcement,” Svetlana Likhachyova, spokesman for the popular travel booking website Aviasales, said
Domestic resorts are bracing themselves not only for Moscow party-goers but also for a potential surge in infections.
Sochi, one of Russia’s most popular resorts which is expecting about 100,000 tourists in the next week, will now allow only vaccinated visitors or travelers with a negative Covid test to stay at local hotels.
Egypt and Turkey, still balmy this time of the year and visa-free for Russians, are likely to be inundated with those escaping the lockdown.
“I think for Egypt, we have sold everything there was to sell – maybe there were some business class tickets left,” Maya Lomidze, executive director of the Association of Russian Travel Agencies, said on the TV Rain channel Wednesday night.
“People are unphased by higher prices.”
Russian officials in recent days sought to warn against traveling and insisted that the purpose of the lockdown was to stay at home.
But the travel frenzy is partly of the officials’ own making: President Valdimir Putin’s spokesman, anxious to avoid acknowledging the scope of the disaster, on Wednesday refused to call the impending restrictions a “lockdown”.
The mayor of Moscow has meanwhile asked the residents “to get some rest” during the stay-at-home period.Internet Explorer Channel Network