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“Cocktails and masks don’t really go together”

MOSCOW – When Nest, a cramped Moscow cocktail lounge, reopened in late June after more than two months of lockout, offered free masks and antiseptic lotion at the entrance to help calm any fear that drinkers might have sat a few centimeters l ‘one from the other around small round tables.

He didn’t have to worry.

“Nobody could care less, so we quickly stopped bidding,” said Roman R. Pometkov, chief bartender and coronavirus survivor. He became infected immediately after the pandemic hit the Russian capital for the first time in full swing in March and now, after recovering in isolation for 28 days at home, he is back to work.

Like everyone else in his busy bar on a recent evening, Mr. Pometkov did not wear a mask. “Everyone just wants to go back to a normal life,” he said. “Cocktails and masks don’t really go together.”

Following a path taken by many people in Florida, Texas and other parts of the United States in early summer, Moscow and most of Russia have warned of the wind in recent weeks.

Restrictions that technically remain in force, such as the requirement to wear masks and gloves in the Moscow metro and on city buses, are also largely ignored. The authorities are making little effort to enforce them, even if some random people have been fined.

“That’s not my department,” he replied on Monday to a stern turnstile guard when asked what the rules were.

The Moscow city government pioneered the alarm for the pandemic in Russia and imposed draconian controls in late March, which were widely observed, at least at the beginning.

Muscovites were ordered to stay home except to buy food and medicine or to bring their dogs less than 100 meters from home. All restaurants and bars were closed and masks and gloves were mandatory for anyone who ventured outside, a rule that the police forcefully imposed.

But on July 24, the city hosted a party in Gorky Park for newly graduated high school students. More than 10,000 young people attended, practically all without masks, for a long night of dancing, hugs and turbulent celebrations up close.

Schools in Russia were told to reopen for the new school year on September 1st. Traffic on the Moscow Metro, which plummeted 85% at the height of the crisis, returned to near-normal levels, with over 5.4 million horse passengers training on Tuesday, a post-lockdown record.

Unlike the belt of the sun in the United States, however, so far Russia has not seen a surge in new cases, at least according to official statistics. The nationwide daily infection rate has remained between 5,000 and 6,000 cases since President Vladimir V. Putin last month declared the battle against the pandemic won.

Putin carried out a huge maskless military parade in Red Square on June 24 and seven days of national voting until July 1 on constitutional amendments that allowed him to remain in power until 2036.

Kremlin critics say the figures are being massaged to avoid making Mr. Putin’s trust premature. And there are some small signs, even in the official numbers, of possible future problems.

The daily number of new infections in Moscow, after falling steadily to 530 in mid-July, started to rise, reaching 695 on Friday. This is a big improvement over the more than 6,000 cases reported every day in the Russian capital at the height of the May epidemic – and very different from the more than 50,000 new cases reported every day this week in the United States – but the upward trend in Moscow, if it continues and accelerates, it could quickly cancel progress.

On Friday, the Moscow city government warned of stiff fines for not wearing masks on public transportation and in shops.

The mayor of Norilsk, an industrial city in the Arctic, recently resigned after accusing regional officials of underestimating coronavirus figures. He said that the real number of cases was more than double the official count.

But others are more optimistic and in a country long accustomed to calamity, any concern the Russians have about an American-style fiasco has been largely offset by the joy of ending the restrictions.

Recent reports of a rash among celebrities have sparked more jokes than screams of alarm. Eljay, a famous rap musician, described his coronavirus infection over the weekend with joy message to his over four million followers on Instagram: “I have a crown, so I’m the king. And if I’m the king, we have a future. “

Although not as politicized as in the United States, wearing the mask is seen as seriously not cold among young people and by many older men, whose often reckless disregard for health warnings, public health experts agree, is reflected in their average life expectancy of 67 years. Some trendy restaurants popular with young people have even started banning masks.

When Kristina Orbakaite, a Russian pop star, published a photo of her wearing a designer mask on Instagram, she incited a storm of protests from fans who accused her, in various ways, of spreading panic, emptying of empty virtues and indulging the “instinct pack of Russian Entertainment.”

The criticisms have become so vicious that Ms. Orbakaite, whose mother, Alla Pugacheva, is an elderly but still extremely popular Russian singer, has posted an audio message to her “dear subscribers and haters”. In it, he expressed dismay that his fashion statement for good hygiene provoked “such a violent reaction” and explained that wearing a mask may not save the wearer but protect others from infection.

“Frankly, I’m discouraged,” he said.

Russia the macho chief, Mr. Putin, while avoiding health risks such as the buzzing vodka that traditionally have been seen as signs of virility in Russia, also overtook President Trump by giving up the face mask. The only time he appeared in public with his face covered was in March, when he visited a Moscow coronavirus clinic with a respirator and a fire retardant suit.

Polina Fedotova, a 27-year-old client at the Nest cocktail bar, said she has many friends in the United States, so she is well aware of what she called the “hellish” situation there. Although not entirely sure that Russia will not end up in the same place, she has decided that the benefits of a normal life far outweigh any potential risk.

“It’s better to go out and live normally and maybe even get sick than to stay home forever without doing anything,” he said.

Ms. Fedotova’s partner for a cocktail evening was a 28-year-old doctor who works in a large hospital in Moscow and who contracted the virus, but barely had symptoms and has now recovered.

“It wasn’t that bad,” said the doctor, who refused to give his surname. “We are people, not robots, and we want to have a life.”

The younger Russians, often very skeptical of all official claims, were the most eager to embrace the idea that the danger has passed or at least that, whatever the risks, it is worth taking.

Yuri Kravchenko, the manager of Pod Mukhoi, a famous basement bar in central Moscow, said that “people are deeply afraid but the desire for a normal life is too strong”.

He wore a mask and had all his staff tested for the virus, one of whom discovered he had the virus without knowing it.

None of his clients on a recent weekend, bundled up on stools in the crowded wooden bar and huddled on their shoulders around the tables in the dining room, wore a mask.

Among them was a group of students from the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. They were celebrating the end of their course, which had been conducted mainly online for the past three months, and the chance to meet face to face for the first time since early spring.

Elizaveta Kolesnik, 21, said she was in France when the pandemic hit Europe and was so frightened that she ran back to Moscow just before Russia closed its borders. After more than two months locked up at home in Moscow, however, he has put aside his previous fear, deciding that “fate will decide what happens now” and “if you are afraid of losing only what life has to offer”.

Francesco Spatola, an Italian-Russian classmate, said he had no faith in official statistics, but is happy to follow the rosy plot of the authorities. It also doesn’t make sense to try to resist the forces of nature.

“It’s sad to say,” he said, “but it’s natural for people to die.”

Ivan Nechepurenko contributed to the report.

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