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Coronavirus: Romania set to ease its lockdown next month after fines pay dividends

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An elderly woman drags a shopping trolley, backdropped by an Elvis Presley poster, at a market place in Bucharest, Romania
An elderly woman drags a shopping trolley, backdropped by an Elvis Presley poster, at a market place in Bucharest, Romania   -   Copyright  Vadim Ghirda/AP Photos
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Strong measures to restrict movement and limit the spread of the coronavirus appear to have had an impact in Romania, with the country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, announcing on Wednesday that authorities would look to start easing restrictions from May 15th.

From the middle of next month, Romanians will be allowed to move freely, without needing to present documentation, he said, with other aspects, like the reopening of schools, to follow step by step.

It was a positive development for the country, which has seen over 500 COVID-19-related deaths and declared a state of emergency on March 16th. It also points to the impact of coronavirus-related measures, including more controversial ones like the heavy use of large fines for those not following stay-at-home orders.

Like in France and Spain, Romania has adopted strict rules for when people are allowed out of their homes, requiring signed statements detailing the purpose and destinations, which must be presented to police or military when asked, along with ID cards.

Between March 24th and April 19th, Romanian law enforcement officers issued roughly 200,000 fines, worth the equivalent of €78 million, for those without documentation or a valid reason for going out. Fines can be as high as 20,000 lei, in a country where the average monthly salary is around 3,000 lei.

In one of the most high-profile incidents, Robert Negoita, the mayor of one district of Bucharest, was fined 10,000 lei after video circulated online of him taking a weekend bike ride in one of the city’s shuttered parks with his girlfriend. Negoita said he’d gone to inspect the park, and had invited her along for the ride, but would accept the consequences of his actions.

Even so, many are sceptical about how much of the fine money will actually end up being paid.

“This is the opposite of Britain. Laws are not expected to be enforced, it’s just to give a signal to people, and the signal worked, they stayed at home,” said Sorin Ionita, an expert in public administration reform and development at the Bucharest-based research group Expert Forum.

Ionita said that only 30 per cent of traffic fines in Romania are ever paid.

“These fines related to coronavirus will be even lower, the enforcement rate,” he said, adding that based on the unpredictability of the legislation and its poor wording there’s a chance that all of the fines will be cancelled in court.

“But that will come later, and meanwhile, in the crisis, they have had an effect,” he said.

Referring to Negoita, Ionita said that he’s one of the guys who can afford to pay and that it "will probably be one of the 10 fines that will actually be paid.”

Going forward, President Iohannis said during his press conference that some measures to combat coronavirus would remain in place in Romania, likely for a long time to come.

Wearing a surgical mask, he said that masks would be mandatory in all enclosed public spaces in Romania, as well as on public transport.

"This is what we will look like after May 15 in enclosed public spaces and when we use public transport,” he said.

The requirement to wear a mask could last until next year, he added, when the pandemic is under control and there is no risk of more infection. Other restrictions, like the ban on public events, will also remain in force.

As of Wednesday evening, Romania had almost 10,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 524 fatalities.