With only a handful of hotels open, the three kilometre-long main street in the Cretan resort town of Hersonissos which is usually jam packed in August, is almost deserted and the few shops that are open announce ‘mega sales’ and ‘50% off everything inside’.
“There are only about 20 per cent of tourists compared to last year and also tourists are scared – they are staying inside their hotels,” one business owner tells me.
In a queue for the ATM I meet Evangelia Zervakis. Like more than half of Cretans who depend on seasonal work to survive, Evangelia, who made 1000euros a month during the 2019 summer season from May to November, was eager - if not desperate - for the hotels to open again. Now, however, the 45 year old divorcee who works in one of the region’s luxury hotels is scared of being ostracised. “Most of the guests are from Sweden, so my neighbours are terrified of catching Covid,” she says.
Like Evangelia, many of Greece’s seasonal workers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. “I have two children and really need to work, but I’m also worried about getting ill,” says Dimitris Papadopulos who turned down a hotel job in Athens because of the recent spike of Covid-19 cases in Greece’s capital city.
According to recent statistics from Greece’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on seasonal employment: with only 43,394 jobs available this year, compared to 296,466 in 2019, there’s just not enough work to go round.
Vicky Maltabe, Human Resources manager for a well known luxury hotel chain says that the situation is heartbreaking. “I advertised a cleaning job and received 280 CVs in a single day – I had to take the phone off the hook because people were calling me all day long and pleading with me to give them the job.”
Hotel owners are worried, too: a recent study by the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels states that as many as 65 per cent of hotels in Greece could be bankrupt by the end of the disastrous 2020 season. “We opened because someone had to be the first to make a move and support the government’s initiative, but it has not been an easy job,” says Georgios Kaloutsakis owner of Abaton Island, a luxurious spa resort near Hersonissos.
With only some 40 cases, however, Crete is still perceived as a safe destination, and stars - including Jennifer Lopez – have flocked to relax on the uncrowded beaches of Greece’s largest island.
A spike in cases elsewhere in Greece, however - from around 2,000 at the end of lockdown to 5,623 cases currently – have brought a flood of new protective measures, including the mandatory wearing of masks in all indoor spaces and the banning of large gatherings. The recent introduction of a midnight curfew for bars and nightclubs at the approach of the August 15 Panagia festival – Greece’s biggest celebration after Easter - has caused anger amongst young people. “I’m not taking any risks, but I have friends on Mykonos who say that they’ll go out and party anyway - they just don’t care anymore," says one Athens teenager.
Business owners are angry, too. In the high-flung mountain village of Armeni, near Sitia in the island’s remote region of East Crete, two taverns which are a lifeline for locals have been told they must now close at 10.30pm, despite the fact that there have been no cases in the surrounding villages since the start of the pandemic.
“Now cafes like this one must close early, even though August 15th is one of our biggest celebrations when everyone is out on the streets until dawn – how will they survive?” asks village mayor Giannis Portorakis. “We’re not worried about the virus here, we’re worried for our businesses and for the future of our young people who run them,” he says.
Despite the doom and gloom, however, business owners are encouraged by the Greek government’s promise that another lockdown is not on the cards. “There won’t be a new lockdown in Greece – we are doing everything to avoid it,” says Professor Giorgos Sourvinos, head of Crete’s Laboratory of Clinical Virology and one of the medical professionals spearheading Greece’s team of Covid specialists.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and constantly introducing new measures, including testing at all the major Covid-19 hotspots - we are currently carrying out more than 10,000 tests a day throughout Greece."