What can one add that hasn’t been said countless times before since March 2020, but this past year has thrown many challenges and changes all over the world.
For ourselves, business owners, employers and ex-pats living in Crete at the time the pandemic struck, its impact was on many levels and from many angles.
Along with the rest of the hotels and businesses around the world, we were starting our preparations for the promise of the coming season of 2020 when the news of our first lockdown came.
Tools downed and and a trip to the supermarket to stock up on provisions, we arrive home and hunker down to await further news of what will happen in the coming days.
Days turned to weeks — and they turned to months — and all the while the country is in complete lockdown. Shops are closed, except for supermarkets and pharmacies, restaurants and coffee shops close their doors and the streets become deserted, like a scene from an old western when the baddie moseys into town.
As we developed unhealthy relationships with our fridges and make dents in our furniture we slowly edge towards the restarting, albeit significantly delayed, tourist season, once again opening our borders for tourists and locals to travel around the country and islands; but how this will impact on the country was yet to be seen.
Crete had zero cases of Covid
The islands, including our Crete, managed to get down to zero cases of COVID during our first lockdown and, although we remained in lockdown, life felt almost normal and the people felt safe — but that quickly changed once the restrictions lifted.
As many predicted, the 2020 season was short. With rules about wearing masks inside and outdoors, businesses having to close by certain times, along with cancelled flights and many regulars choosing to stay at home rather than risk the travel, the season — usually the height of summer — felt more like a very hot May or October with quiet streets and tavernas and bars lucky to be even half full.
What many also foresaw was, once the season ended and Greece had reaped the euros, the country went back into lockdown — and this time it was serious.
COVID cases shot up once the tourists left; whether the numbers were suppressed during the season or it just spread quickly is anyone’s guess, but November arrived and the restrictions began again.
With the locking of the business doors came the restricted movement of the local population.
As had been the case in March, we returned to sending text messages every time we want or need to leave the house, be it to visit a doctor, get food supplies or do some exercise. And then came the curfew and only those with dogs were allowed out after specific times, after sending the text message, wearing a mask and carrying the relevant ID.
Once again this became the norm for the country, and six months on it still remains.
With daily counts ranging from 10 to 70 new cases on the island and a slow but progressing vaccination program, the country collectively holds its breath for news of the 2021 season — but for many this will be a bitter transition.
Closed businesses in Crete
Many businesses closed their doors at the end of the 2019 season with hope; but the pandemic, and time, shattered that hope and more and more “For Rent’ signs appear on windows fronting abandoned businesses with ever deepening layers of dust, covering the lives and investments of their once proud and optimistic owners.
After starting the process of preparing to open early in 2020, businesses have closed and the country spent seemingly endless months desperately trying to make every saved cent last as long as possible.
For many, there were no handouts from the government, and for those fortunate enough to receive a payment or two, it was barely enough for food, never mind the never-ending electricity bills or rent payments.
For those lucky enough to live outside the big cities, there are plenty of open spaces one can wander to shake off the couch legs, but only within 2 km (1.2 miles) of your home.
In the big cities and capital, the population has been locked in their houses since the beginning of the second lockdown, too afraid to step out for fear of being stopped by the police or contracting COVID19.
This pandemic has put an end to thousands of dreams of living abroad as people now make their way back to their home countries in search of income, balancing the need to make a living with the much higher risk of infection.
Many will do their best to put their brave faces on and get their businesses ready with bated breath for whatever this year will bring in terms of tourism, many smaller businesses praying that the tourists opt for the security of separation offered by villas, self-catering apartments and smaller hotels.
The kinds of tourists who are also itching to go out to eat the local produce and buy the products offered in the stores.
For others, it is now a time of reinvention and change. Trying to find jobs and income in a financially tight year when there will be more applications than available jobs, or using the opportunity to find a niche to explore and establish for future growth.
The resilience of the Cretan (and Greek) spirit
One consistency throughout this pandemic has been, and always will be, the resilience of the Cretan (and Greek) spirit. Families have pooled resources, land that lay unused has been ploughed and now nourishes rows of vegetables to help what little money there is go that little bit further.
Recently I spoke with someone from Athens and, when they found out I was living on Crete, their first comment was “how lucky to see the sea” and maybe that is a factor in the Cretan spirit. Wherever it comes from, the Greek spirit is strong and resilient to many things, but the patience can be short when tested, and it has been tested in recent days.
These past few weeks Greece has opened its borders to “test tourists,” from Germany, Israel and other countries, and Crete is one such location. Planes full of tourists have arrived on the island, and across the country they are spewing the passengers forth to freely stomp around the island.
Tourism a “slap in the face”
Quite what they are planning on doing is unsure, because nothing has opened for this trial period; hotels remain closed, tourist attractions, shops and restaurants are locked up and so are the local population.
The locals must peer from their windows as they see strangers walking down their streets or through their villages freely while a grandmother must ensure her exit permit is correct before even daring to step out the door.
To say this is a slap in the face would be an understatement. And what are they testing? If it is to see if the planes still fly, I’m not sure I would want to be the first person on the initial flight.
If it is to boost the economy, it might help to release the locals and open up some places that the tourists can spend some money. If it is to test the numbers of infections, I’d rather keep them out of the country until they have all been vaccinated and are safer.
For those of us who have family and friends in other countries, we see pubs opening and freedom of travel, shops opening and restrictions reducing, and we know this will come to Greece one day soon.
For now the restrictions remain and the shops and restaurants keep their doors closed until after Easter, which isn’t until 2nd May here; but with ongoing support of our community, friends and ever-understanding families we plod on to the days of relative freedom that lie ahead.
Benjamin Newton Wylie-Black is the owner of the Home Hotel, located 3 km (1.8 miles) from the heart of Hersonissos, known for its dynamic nightlife, its many scenic charms and wonderful beaches.