ATHENS – Holiday goodwill during the coronavirus lockdown? In Greece, it’s been in short supply between the nation’s two leading politicians.
A spat has erupted over competing claims that the prime minister and his main rival broke the spirit of pandemic restrictions that have renewed financial hardship for many voters.
Conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was photographed last weekend posing with his mountain bike, without a mask, alongside five motocross riders on a hillside trail outside Athens. Greece's lockdown rules exempt people who've gone outdoors for exercise, including cycling, from the obligation to wear a mask.
Government officials insisted Mitsotakis had not broken the rules, but Syriza, the left-wing main opposition party, urged him to publicly apologize for displaying “arrogance and a lack of empathy” for his fellow Greeks.
Mitsotakis on Monday conceded he'd been wrong to agree to be photographed without a mask when he met the bikers on the trail.
“This gave me the opportunity to reflect on how important the personal example that politicians set is,” he said in an interview with private Alpha TV, adding: “I follow the rules religiously and it bothers me that a small moment of relaxation or carelessness was blown up out of proportion.”
The government hit back against Syriza Monday, citing articles in pro-conservative newspapers reporting that Alexis Tsipras, the former prime minister and current opposition leader, spent much of his time in a rented upscale seaside home.
“It’s political hypocrisy for the leader of the opposition. He wants people to see him as the boy from the (blue-collar) neighborhood and not someone living the high life,” government spokesman Stelios Petsas said.
Syriza described the response as a “desperate attempt to change the conversation amid the public outcry over the mishandling of the pandemic and the (prime minister’s) efforts to dodge public health restrictions.”
Mitsotakis’ center-right New Democracy has maintained a strong lead in opinion polls since taking office last year that increased through much of the pandemic, as infection rates remained much lower than many other European countries.
The difference has narrowed slightly in recent weeks following a post-summer surge of cases. Greece’s pandemic death toll reached close to 3,100 on Monday, with most deaths occurring after Nov. 1.
The government Monday said it will maintain core lockdown measures through the Christmas holidays, acknowledging that monthlong restrictions have not reduced COVID-19 cases to the extent it had hoped for.
Schools, courts, and restaurants will remain closed through Jan. 7, Petsas said, while non-essential travel between Greece’s administrative regions will also be banned.
Stay-at-home orders nationwide will remain in effect until that date, with movement outside only allowed with government permission — which can be granted by SMS text message. And travelers arriving between Dec. 18 and Jan. 7 will be required to go into precautionary quarantine for 10 days. Restrictions for stores, churches, and hair salons will be announced later this week.
The number of daily infections, based on a seven-day rolling average, is currently at 1,609 compared to 2,674 in mid-November, according to figures tallied by the Health Ministry.
On Monday, 1,251 new confirmed infections were reported, bringing the total so far to nearly 117,000.
The current lockdown was launched on Nov. 7 and initially planned to last for three weeks.