The Russian capital on Thursday started a nonworking period intended to stem coronavirus infections as new daily cases and deaths from COVID-19 surged to all-time highs.
The government coronavirus task force reported 1,159 deaths in 24 hours, the largest daily tally since the pandemic began. The country's official death toll from the pandemic, by far the highest in Europe, now stands at 235,057.
To slow the spread of the virus, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a non-working period from October 30 to November 7, when most state organisations and private businesses are to suspend operations. He encouraged the most affected regions to start sooner, and some ordered most of their residents off work earlier this week.
Moscow followed Thursday, shutting kindergartens, schools, gyms, entertainment venues and most stores, and allowing restaurants and cafes to only provide service for takeout or delivery. Food stores, pharmacies and companies operating key infrastructure remained open.
Access to museums, theatres, concert halls and other venues is limited to people holding digital codes on their smartphones to prove they have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, a practice that will remain in place after November 7.
Putin has also instructed local officials to close nightclubs and other entertainment venues and ordered unvaccinated people older than 60 to stay home.
The number of new daily cases in Russia rose by 40,096 on Thursday, topping a previous record reached earlier this week. The government hopes that the nonworking period will help curb the spread by keeping most people out of offices and public transportation.
But many Russians quickly sought to take advantage of the time for a seaside vacation ahead of the long winter season.
The worried authorities in southern Russia moved to shut down entertainment venues and limit access to restaurants and bars to prevent a spike in infections. The sales of package tours to Egypt and Turkey also jumped.
Authorities have blamed the surging contagion and deaths on the laggard pace of vaccination. Only about 49 million Russians — about a third of the country’s nearly 146 million people — are fully vaccinated.
Russia was the first country in the world to authorise a coronavirus vaccine in August 2020, proudly naming the shot Sputnik V after the first artificial satellite to showcase the country's scientific prowess. But the vaccination campaign has slumped amid widespread public scepticism blamed on conflicting signals from authorities.
Putin has deplored Russians’ vaccine hesitancy. “There are just two options for everyone — to get sick, or receive a vaccine," he said last week. "And there is no way to walk between the raindrops.”
Regional officials have made shots mandatory for certain categories of workers, but Putin rejected proposals to make them compulsory for everyone, emphasizing that they should remain voluntary.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that authorities would continue efforts to persuade Russians to get immunised until the goal of attaining collective immunity is achieved.
“This is an ongoing campaign that must and is being carried out on a permanent basis,” Peskov said, dismissing a newspaper report alleging that authorities plan to relaunch a campaign promoting vaccination. “We need to persuade everyone.”
Asked if the Kremlin might eventually make vaccines mandatory, Peskov said only that authorities would closely monitor the numbers.
“We will see how the situation evolves,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. “For now, the numbers don’t give grounds for optimism.”