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Finnish cities considering targeted action to deal with coronavirus flare-ups

City officials are examining measures that could used on a local level to deal with a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Kuvassa rakennusmiehet istuvat Kolmen sepän patsaalla heinäkuussa 2020.
Construction workers on a break in the centre of Helsinki. The City of Helsinki has carried out coronavirus testing on employees at construction sites where infections have been detected. File photo. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

The short northern summer will soon be drawing to an end, which means people are likely to be spending more time indoors, in close proximity to others. These are the conditions under which the coronavirus could make a resurgence.

As early as June, some Finnish health experts began suggesting that restrictions to hinder the spread of the virus could be targeted at smaller local areas. The idea was that individual cities, or even just neighbourhoods in those cities, could be subjected to special measures rather than imposing wide-sweeping restrictions on entire regions, as was the case when Helsinki and the surrounding region of Uusimaa was cordoned off from the rest of the country last spring.

Schools and jobs

According to Juha Jolkkonen, who is the executive director for social services and health care for the City of Helsinki, cities and rural municipalities can temporarily close, for example, daycare centres, schools and even private workplaces under the current Communicable Diseases Act.

However, other measures would be considered before a decision on closures is made.

Story continues after the photo.

Juha Jolkkonen
Juha Jolkkonen is the Executive Director for Social Services and Health Care Sector in the City of Helsinki. Image: Toni Määttä / Yle
"Closing is, of course, an extreme measure. Guidelines and recommendations are the primary means," Jolkkonen says.

"For example, on construction sites, advice and instructions have been increased, hand washing facilities have been inspected and all employees, including asymptomatic workers, have been easily tested if any infections have been found," Jolkkonen adds.

For many employees, shutting down a job site would mean a shift to telecommuting and closing a school would mean a return to online lessons for pupils.

Timo Aronkytö, Deputy Mayor for Social and Health Care for the City of Vantaa, does not consider it far-fetched that schools could be temporarily closed in the autumn.

"If a second wave comes, then the closure of schools may come quite quickly," Aronkytö says.

Other public facilities, such as libraries, and private operations, such as gyms, could also be closed.

Any local decision on closures could be made for a maximum of one month at a time. Re-openings could take place as soon as health criteria were met.

Could neighbourhoods be closed off?

During the spring, some European countries imposed curfews to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. Could this also happen in Finland if a second wave strikes?

According to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, just a drastic measure, would not be possible without a new Emergency Powers Act that would allow for temporary restrictions on the freedom of movement. An Emergency Powers Act was in force in Finland, but was revoked in mid-June.

However, this is an option that cannot be entirely ruled out, and special government powers could be reinstated if the infection situation so requires.

Even so, neither Helsinki's Juha Jolkkonen or Vantaa's Timo Aronkytö consider restrictions on movement in residential areas to be very likely.

"Usually there is a common factor behind these infections other than a residential area or a district," Jolkkonen points out, "The most important thing is to determine what the main factor spreading infections is."

For this reason, restrictions would focus primarily on schools, workplaces or public events.

Increased bus services?

However, according to Jolkkonen, Helsinki is also prepared for measures that could affect individual city districts. These, though, would be softer than some the spring's more stringent restrictions.

For example, the intervals between buses in a potentially infected area could be increased to allow for better distancing.

"In addition, we could bring a mobile, low-threshold test point to the site," Jolkkonen explains.

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