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Posted on Jun 22, 2020 in Blog, Portugal

Portugal Reopens for Tourists

Portugal Reopens for Tourists

I’m still stuck in New York City, probably the last place in the world to reopen from Covid-19. Today, we begin our Phase 2, which includes restaurants with outdoor seating only, hair care, and retail stores (but not malls) at less than 50% capacity. I’ve watched the careless reopening of many other states in the U.S., such as Texas where most of my family lives and where cases have skyrocketed, and the more systematic process in most of Europe and Asia.

The European countries hit hardest in the pandemic — Italy, Spain, France, and the UK — are now seeing declining cases and deaths. Other countries with thorough testing and contact tracing, like Germany, had more than 100,000 cases but a lower fatality rate than the countries where the pandemic raged uncontrolled. Countries that mandated face masks and social distancing early and had high levels of compliance, like the Czech Republic, had few cases overall. As a result, the European Commission on June 15, 2020, called for the countries of the Schengen Zone, which allows free movement across borders, to reopen borders closed by the pandemic. To guide travelers throughout Europe, the commission launched Reopen EU, “a web platform that contains essential information allowing a safe relaunch of free movement and tourism across Europe.” Airlines are now restoring flights among the European countries, and trains are running as well, though cruise ships, considered petri dishes for viruses, are still prohibited from docking.

Ilha Deserta, with Isla Farol in the background. Part of the Ria Formosa nature reserve in the Algarve.

In comparison to next-door neighbor Spain, Portugal has suffered less impact from the pandemic. According to the Worldometers site, the country of just over ten million people has reported just under 40,000 cases and 1,534 deaths as of June 22, for a rate of 3,863 cases per million and 150 deaths per million. Portugal began a limited reopening in late May and is now welcoming visitors and locals with restrictions that include occupancy limits in stores, restaurants, and museums and red-yellow-green signs on beaches to make sure they have space for social distancing. At the end of May, our friends in Porto returned to the city after two and an half months with family in the Algarve — like many people in US cities having fled for safer, less crowded conditions and outdoor space for the children. When we spoke with them via Skype two weeks ago, they said visitors were once again arriving in the Algarve. The first wave of tourists came from within Portugal, but now more are coming from elsewhere in Europe.

Portugal’s border with Spain remains closed until July 1, and talks are ongoing about an “air bridge” between Portugal and the UK allowing enhanced freedom of movement between the two countries. The UK accounts for a substantial share of Portugal’s tourism, so it’s not surprising to see special arrangements made. When it comes to the rest of the world, Portugal faces a dilemma, because of heavy travel to and from the United States and Brazil, two countries where the national government has done nothing to stop the pandemic. Right now, temperature checks at the airports are the only measures in place in the Portuguese mainland, though Madeira and the Azores have more stringent measures including a negative test within 72 hours or a 14-day quarantine.

There are currently few flights from the U.S. to and from Portugal. TAP has two flights from Newark, each of them twice a week. Other routes involve changing planes in other European countries. There aren’t that many ways yet of getting from the U.S. to Portugal. Canada offers more options, so if you’re Canadian and reading this, visiting Portugal this summer is more of a possibility for you. It’s a perk of having a better government.

However, if you’re going to Portugal this summer and fall, you want to have a good time. You don’t want to walk past closed restaurants, stores, museums, and other sites. You may not feel comfortable taking public transportation, though the government has mandated face masks and less than two-thirds occupancy for all public transportation, the equivalent of blocking off the middle seat in coach on an airplane. For restaurants, outdoor seating is best; 1.5 meters of separation between tables is required indoors. While the lockdown took place in the off-season, sparing restaurants the worst of its effects, I’m not sure how many of the restaurants, food courts, and pastry and ice cream shops that Richard recommended have survived. I suggest visiting their websites before going there.

A church in Obidos with the signature azulejos, Portuguese blue and white tiles.

This may be a good year to take that beach vacation. You will spend more time outdoors, and at a distance from other families and groups on holiday. The Algarve isn’t the only place to go; there are great beach destinations south of Lisbon. Surfers and other watersports fans will enjoy the Silver Coast north of Lisbon, and there are some interesting historical sites in that area, such as the reconstructed medieval town of Obidos. If you’re nervous about public transportation, go ahead and rent that car. If you stay out of Lisbon and Porto, you will avoid the aggravations of driving in hilly cities with narrow, winding, haphazardly planned streets that are more suitable for livestock than cars. The comments section of my piece “Should You Rent a Car in Portugal?” has advice, as does my follow-up piece on car-rental options.

Because my husband will be teaching online in the fall and I’m walking again on my injured ankle, we may return to Portugal in the fall to see our friends and report on how everyone is faring. I’m also hoping to take that research trip for MOONWALKING and another new super-secret project. It’s hard to predict the state of the world these days, but if you can make it to Portugal, have a great time and tell me about it!

Update 1, June 26, 2020: It appears that the EU plans to ban visitors from the United States, Brazil, and Russia due to these countries’ poor handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. This information will be updated as soon as the situation changes.

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