Poland’s government has announced new steps to ensure that businesses and members of the public adhere to coronavirus guidelines, as well as the introduction of further measures to tackle the epidemic.
This will include using the police to check on compliance in shops and at weddings, as well as increasing fines for violating the rules. Restrictions may also now become more regionalised in response to local outbreaks.
The decision follows a rise in new Covid-19 infections to record levels. Last week, for three successive days Poland report its highest ever numbers of new cases, reaching 658 on Saturday.
On Sunday and today, new infections fell to 548 and 575 respectively, still among the highest figures recorded since the beginning of the pandemic.
“There are no excuses when it comes to wearing masks,” said health minister Łukasz Szumowski today. “Unfortunately people have to be reminded that there is a binding law.”
It has been compulsory for customers to cover their faces in shops since early April. However, as the government has taken steps to “unfreeze” lockdown restrictions, compliance among shoppers has become more lax. In June, the health ministry called on shops to turn away customers without masks.
Now the government will step up enforcement, with police and sanitary services beginning spot checks in shops this week to ensure compliance among shoppers and staff.
Those found to be in violation of the rules can be fined up 500 zloty (€113) on the spot, and up to 30,000 zloty (€6,800) if the sanitary authorities take further action against them.
Szumowski also reminded the public that they are required to cover their nose as well as their mouth. He dismissed claims that doing so can restrict oxygen intake, and added that if anyone has such concerns, they can simply wear a visor instead.
Poland health minister Szumowski: if we subtract 300 #coronavirus cases in six big local outbreaks from the total [of record 657 today], we'll be at a stable level of more or less 300 cases.
In other developments today: if Austria had no Alps, it'd be flat. https://t.co/erYpXobOZ6
— Wojciech Kość 🏳️🌈 (@WojciechKosc) July 31, 2020
The health minister also announced that the organisers of weddings will have to register the number of guests in advance. The authorities will then carry out checks to ensure that figure is not exceeded, as well as whether other sanitary restrictions are adhered to.
Wedding receptions were allowed to resume in early June, though with an attendance limit of 150 people. They have since become hot spots for new infections. By mid-July, sanitary authorities had recorded 350 infections at weddings, with a further 2,300 guests quarantined as a result.
Since then, further outbreaks have been reported, with at least 33 people found to be infected at a single wedding in Silesia, Polsat News reported last week.
Concerns have also been raised about the reopening of domestic tourism, with reports and images of crowded scenes on beaches, mountains and other population spots.
In response to the rising number of infections, Ukraine over the weekend added Poland to its list of countries with increased risk of coronavirus, meaning that arrivals from there must undergo 14 days of quarantine.
The Polish government itself announced last week that it may reintroduce quarantine restrictions for visitors from certain countries. It has also yet to decide whether schools will reopen next month at the start of the academic year, or if remote learning will continue instead.
In an interview with Sieci published yesterday, Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, warned that, because Poland “has dealt with the threats very well – perhaps too well – it has lulled us into a false sense of security”.
Today, speaking with TVN24, government spokesman Piotr Mueller confirmed that work was underway to introduce legislative changes that would “regionalise restrictions on many levels”.
For example, there could be different rules in various parts of the country as to whether and how schools can reopen and how many customers can be let into restaurants, dependent upon the local epidemiological situation, explained Mueller.
The new legislation would also make financial sanctions for companies that do not comply with the rules “several times higher” than now, said Mueller. Fines are currently so low that often firms decide it is “better to break the rules and risk a penalty than to obey them”, he added.
Many of Poland’s biggest outbreak of the virus have occurred in workplaces such as mines and factories, and Mueller reminded firms that they are obliged to comply with distancing guidelines.
He also warned that, although the return of tourism has been “good for the economy, it generates some risks” and it is important for distancing and face-covering requirements to be maintained.
There has been no large spike in cases before now, with the rate of new infections remaining relatively flat since early April. Poland is also forecast to have the smallest relative decline in GDP among EU member states this year.
Last month, Morawiecki himself declared that Poles “do not need to be afraid” of the coronavirus anymore. His words came as he encouraged the public – especially seniors – to “vote in large numbers” at the presidential election on 12 July.
During the election campaign, rallies held by the leading candidates attracting crowds numbering in the hundreds, with few participants adhering to the government’s face-covering and distancing regulations. The prime minister himself was pictured violating the rules in May.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.