MOSCOW (AP) – On Thursday, Moscow authorities ordered most people off work for at least 11 days to stop coronavirus infections as new daily cases and deaths from COVID-19 in Russia hit record levels.
The government’s task force on coronavirus reported 1,159 deaths in 24 hours, the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic. The official death toll from the pandemic, which is by far the highest in Europe, is 235,057. But the state statistics agency, which counts deaths more broadly, reported 418,000 COVID-19-related deaths as of August 1.
In any case, this puts Russia among the most affected countries in the world during the pandemic.
To slow the spread of the virus, Russian President Vladimir Putin has set a non-working period from October 30 to November 7, when most state organizations and private enterprises should suspend their activities. He called on the most affected regions of Russia to start work earlier, and some of them ordered most of the residents to leave work earlier this week.
Moscow followed suit by closing kindergartens, schools, gyms, entertainment venues and most shops, and restricting restaurants and cafes to take-out or delivery only. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and key infrastructure companies remained open.
Access to museums, theaters, concert halls and other venues is restricted for people who have digital codes on their smartphones to prove they have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, a practice that will continue beyond November 7.
Putin also ordered local authorities to close nightclubs and other entertainment venues and ordered unvaccinated people over 60 to stay at home.
READ MORE: Putin to leave Russian workers at home for a week as deaths rise
The number of new daily infections in Russia rose 40,096 on Thursday, surpassing the previous record reached earlier this week. The government hopes that most people will not get to their offices and public transport can limit the spread, but many Russians quickly tried to take advantage of the unexpected time to relax at sea.
Airplane ticket sales skyrocketed to southern Russia, Egypt and Turkey, prompting southern Russian authorities to quickly close entertainment venues and restrict access to restaurants and bars.
The authorities blamed the rise in infections and deaths for the slowdown in vaccination rates in Russia. Only about 49 million Russians – about a third of the country’s nearly 146 million inhabitants – are fully vaccinated.
Russia was the first country in the world to authorize the coronavirus vaccine in August 2020 and proudly named the vaccine Sputnik V to showcase the country’s scientific prowess. But the vaccination campaign failed amid widespread public skepticism, blamed on conflicting signals from authorities.
Putin expressed regret over the indecisiveness of Russians regarding vaccinations.
“Everyone has two options – get sick or get the vaccine,” he said last week.
Regional authorities have made vaccinations mandatory for certain categories of workers, but Putin has rejected proposals to make them mandatory for everyone.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that authorities will continue to try to convince Russians to get vaccinated until herd immunity is achieved.
“This is an ongoing campaign that must and is being carried out on an ongoing basis,” said Peskov. “We need to convince everyone.”
Asked if the Kremlin could ultimately make vaccines mandatory, Peskov only said the authorities would keep a close eye on the numbers.
“Let’s see how the situation will develop,” said Peskov during a conference call with reporters. “So far, the numbers do not give grounds for optimism.”