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Helsinki authorities tighten coronavirus restrictions, but ministry says not enough

City and privately-run facilities in the capital region will close for two weeks from 1 March, but there are exceptions.

Helsingin pormestari Jan Vapaavuori
Helsinki mayor Jan Vapaavuori (NCP). Image: Emmi Korhonen / lehtikuva

Authorities in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area have further tightened restrictions aimed at tackling the spread of coronavirus in the region, but the measures have been criticised by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (STM) as not going far enough.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday afternoon, Helsinki mayor Jan Vapaavuori (NCP) said that the coronavirus situation in the capital region is deteriorating at a rapid rate and regional authorities are preparing for the possibility of exceptional circumstances.

Finland reported 720 new lab-confirmed coronavirus cases on Friday, the highest daily total ever recorded, with 467 infections diagnosed in the Helsinki University hospital district (HUS).

According to health agency THL, 2,172 coronavirus infections have been diagnosed in Helsinki over the last two weeks, as well as 892 in Vantaa and 526 in Espoo.

Vapaavuori said that Southern Finland’s Regional State Administrative Agency (Avi) had therefore decided on a number of measures aimed at tackling the spread, such as the closure of all city-run facilities.

This includes indoor sports arenas, cultural centres and museums, youth facilities, public saunas and swimming pools, playgrounds and sports facilities such as gyms.

Privately-run facilities will also be ordered to close from next Monday for a period of two weeks, until 14 March.

The closure order applies to the Helsinki metropolitan area as well as to the municipalities of Järvenpää, Kerava, Kirkkonummi, Sipoo and Tuusula.

However, there are two exceptions to the regulations.

The restriction does not apply to indoor, privately-run premises in which the number of participants can be limited to a maximum of 10 at a time while also ensuring a two-metre safety distance. Staff are not included in the ten-person limit.

There is another exception in relation to privately-run sports facilities, which can still be used by children aged 12 and younger.

In his statement, Vapaavuori emphasised that the exceptions apply only to privately-run facilities and not city premises, which will be completely closed. He also stressed the importance of following hygiene instructions and observing safety distances.

Ministry calls for "complete closure"

In response to the announcement of the restrictions, Head of Department at the STM Satu Koskela said that premises should be completely shut and that gyms, for example, should not be allowed to continue to operate with a maximum of 10 people.

"The aim was to make every effort, now that it is legally in place, to implement a complete closure. The ministry's policy is that operations must be completely suspended," Koskela said.

STM had provided instructions to regional agencies considered to be in the spreading phase of the epidemic to fully implement the measures permitted by the Communicable Diseases Act.

"Our expectation is that the decision will be changed in accordance with the Ministry's instructions," Koskela said, adding that the ministry was not aware in advance of the more lenient guidelines.

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