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In Greece, It’s Almost Normal

by Mary Sewell

The plaster-cast heads of Dionysus were back. The unblinking blue Mati evil eyes and Parthenon refrigerator magnets hung once more outside the souvenir shops of Plaka and Monastiraki, where shopkeepers tended to rows upon rows of leather sandals, silver meander rings, dried spices, and Cretan mountain tea. The tourists were back, too, if not quite so many as one might expect in the historic heart of Athens on a similarly brilliant, blue June day of years past.

They strolled Pandrossou Street in their masks, filling the restaurant terraces that line the sinuous alleyways of the Psiri neighborhood as the sunset to share plates of mashed fava beans, grilled octopus, and Greek salad. The streets hummed with the din of voices and clinking glasses, but no music. Music would not be allowed for one more week. The masks mainly were off now, revealing contented, sun-dazzled faces — and maybe the slightest flicker of lingering unease.

On May 14, Greece officially opened its doors to vaccinated and Covid-negative visitors worldwide, including the United States. In doing so, the country jumped ahead of a broader European Union reopening when coronavirus cases remained high and more than three-quarters of the Greek populace was still unvaccinated. It was a gamble Greece couldn’t afford to make after seeing its economy shrink a staggering 8.2 percent in 2020. The country welcomed only 7.4 million visitors last year, compared to 34 million in 2019 when travel and tourism accounted for more than 20 percent of the gross domestic product.

“It’s beyond wanting. We need the people to come back,” said Chara Lianou, an Athenian with dyed-lilac hair and matching acrylics which was serving coffee at Kafeneion 111 in Monastiraki. “The economy needs it, and going back to work, you feel like you are doing something. The communication with the people, even the bad ones, they make my day,” she said as a new group of patrons settled in beside us.

I arrived in Athens on a Saturday in early June after a brief scare in which I very nearly missed the 24-hour deadline for electronically submitting a Passenger Locator Form, or P.L.F., one of several new measures required for anyone entering Greece from abroad. At least six people were refused boarding on my flight from Berlin for failing to submit the P.L.F. or doing so incorrectly. Anyone entering the country abroad must also have proof of vaccination or a negative test (not older than 72 hours for P.C.R., or 48 hours for an antigen). Medical personnel is stationed at the airport to perform tests as needed at mobile laboratories. When I visited, there was a mask mandate and social distancing in all public places, even outdoors, though it’s since been narrowed to indoor and very crowded outdoor spaces.

For the unvaccinated, there’s a further element of uncertainty.

“You’re always a bit worried,” said Sonia Higuera, a Colombian pharmaceutical representative visiting Athens from her home in Switzerland, where only about a third of the country is vaccinated. “Like what happens in the event I’m positive, and I have to stay for 14 days in this country doing quarantine?”

And yet, with all the restrictions, the Greek gamble seems to be paying off. A month after reopening, coronavirus cases in the country reached a record low. At the same time, visitor numbers continue to climb — especially from the United States, where airlines like American and United are offering more direct daily flights to Greece than at any other time.

“I talked to one of my friends right before I came, and he’s like, you’re the fourth person I talked to today who’s going to Greece. What’s going on in Greece?” said Melissa Pappas, a New Yorker visiting the Acropolis with her father and sister. They booked the trip last minute after learning of the reopening and explored Athens before heading north to climb Mount Olympus.

“When Greece opened up May 14, we said, let’s go,” said Alla Wilson, a marketing director from Memphis visiting Greece with her husband of one year. “We got married in May 2020 and had to cancel everything. So, technically, this is our honeymoon and our anniversary trip,” she said.

After arriving in Athens, Ms. Wilson and her husband hiked through northern Greece before heading to Santorini and Antiparos. “We’re super happy we were able to come when we did,” she said. “It’s a perfect time. It felt totally safe. You avoid the crowds. You don’t have to wait in line.”

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