Bulgaria extends ‘epidemic emergency’ and mulls tightening COVID-19 restrictions

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis. [Shutterstock]

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

Some measures may be re-instated if the number of infected people in Bulgaria reaches 200 per day, explained Bulgarian Health Minister Kiril Ananiev, as the country recently recorded between 150-180 COVID-19 infections per day based on about 3,000 tests.

We just have to be disciplined and keep social distance, as well as wear masks, the minister added.

Previsouly, the Bulgarian government extended its so-called ‘epidemic emergency’ until 15 July.

While stricter measures which were in place during the state of emergency won’t be reinstated, travellers from certain countries will still have to undergo quarantine and wearing facemasks in indoor public spaces will remain obligatory, Health Minister Kiril Ananiev explained.

Besides, authorities are calling on the general public to remain disciplined and respect social-distancing measures.

In the past two weeks, Bulgaria recorded a spike in new COVID-19 infections with an average of 84 infections recorded between 10 June and 23 June, compared to an average of 26 between 27 May and 9 June.

However, the number of COVID-19 tests carried out also increased two-fold and are approximately 2,000 per day now.

This comes after Prime Minister Boyko Borissov explained that the country would not introduce new measures against COVID-19 because it would cause panic and would put the country’s economy at much greater risk, adding that decisions were based only on expert advice.

“We should not panic that the number of coronavirus patients has increased. I am not calling for stricter measures against the coronavirus, but the three “D”s must be observed – discipline, disinfection and distance”, said the PM.

On 10 June, the PM announced the extension of the state of emergency until 30 June to allow authorities to set tighter border controls and other restrictions.

Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s tourism industry, which is worth about 12% of the country’s GDP, could see its income fall by 50% due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the worst-case scenario.

In a more positive outlook, it could, however, see a decrease in revenues between 30-40%, tourism minister Nikolina Angelkova announced.

To attract tourists to the country, €6 million has been set aside in this year’s budget for TV advertisements. As of next week, adverts promoting Bulgaria will be broadcast in all neighbouring countries, Scandinavia, Germany, the Visegrad Four and Israel.

As of Thursday (25 June), the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is 4,232 (130 more than the day before) with 209 deaths and 2,263 recoveries. 

Authorities announced on 4 May that Bulgaria’s peak occurred between 20 and 26 April. The increase of COVID-19 cases in Bulgaria is largely due to people flying in from abroad and to clusters in nursing homes, authorities later said on 7 May.

Reopening borders

Due to the increase in COVID-19 cases in North Macedonia, Bulgaria has decided, again, to close its borders with its neighbour on 4 June after North Macedonia’s authorities reported a record of 120 new COVID-19 infections within 24 hours that day.

Those who are allowed to enter the country from North Macedonia, such as Bulgarian citizens or medical workers, for example, will be quarantined for 14 days.

Travel between Bulgaria and its neighbouring countries Greece, Serbia and Romania will be without quarantine as of 1 June for business and family reasons and as of 15 June for tourism.

The decision was made during a video conference between country leaders initiated by Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

The people who want to travel will have to fill out declarations stating that they have no COVID-19 symptoms, are not quarantined in their own country, agree to travel at their own risk and leave their phone numbers so they can be contacted.

A gradual and partial lifting of restrictions

All restrictive lockdown measures will be lifted in Bulgaria on 15 June, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announced on 3 June, adding that after that date only social distancing measures would remain in place.

During the pandemic, restrictions were gradually lifted, while others were imposed. The PM even admitted that many measures approved during the pandemic were not very well thought out, like the mandatory wearing of masks indoors, coupled with allowing restaurants to open.

Despite record-high levels of new infections in the country, Bulgaria started the process of gradually lifting restrictions from 27 April, after authorities had extended the state of emergency until 13 May on 1 April.

For instance, it decided to open eight parks in Sofia for people exercising alone or with children or dogs but decided to forbid people from touching surfaces and sitting on benches. 

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that the measures were an acceptable risk but warned that if people did not respect the restrictions, they would be closed again. These measures included forbidding people from touching surfaces and sitting on benches. 

On 6 May, Bulgarian authorities allowed travel between cities, the opening of restaurants and cafe’s gardens. They also relaxed measures on the mandatory wearing of masks in open spaces, which is no longer obligatory.

However, Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov warned that anti-coronavirus measures will be tightened again if the country records more than 100 new COVID-19 infections per day.

“We are a few steps ahead of all other European countries. What they call a loosening of measures now we have had since the first day of the state of emergency – banks, offices, construction, shops – have not stopped working”, Borissov said.

According to the decision made on 13 May, the state of urgency was downgraded to “epidemiological urgency,” which allowed for the  some measures have been eased.

For example, organ transplants were allowed, or city parks will be open to the public. However, the obligation for all incoming passengers, no matter if they are Bulgarian or foreign, to observe a 14-day quarantine after arrival to the country, will remain.

While Bulgarian authorities have started opening kindergartens across the country after two and a half months, medical experts are urging people who can look after children at home not to send them back.

When Bulgaria declared a state of emergency for the first time, the government proposed measures on 12 March, which forced restaurants and shops that weren’t selling foods or medicines, as well as kindergartens, schools and universities to close. Besides, citizens coming from countries with a severe coronavirus outbreak were not allowed to enter the country.

The country’s first emergency law saw the prime minister and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev disagree on which measures should be included. For example, the president vetoed the Law by not accepting certain elements of it, including the restrictions on freedom of speech the law had introduced.

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Various support measures across the economy

After proposing an initial state aid package, the country’s aid package was set at approximately €2.3 billion, a sum which Prime Minister Boyko Borissov had said may be insufficient, the government adopted a few more measures.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announced on 12 May that the VAT for restaurants, catering and entertainment sector will be decreased from 20% to 9% following a meeting with sector representatives.

However, after the government announced that morning (12 May) that VAT on basic foodstuffs would also be reduced from the beginning of 2021, 40 minutes later, confusion reigned when it announced that the tax on food will remain at 20%. By the end of the day, Borissov had clarified that a reduced VAT rate for restaurants and hotels would take effect this year. In an attempt to minimise political damage, the PM even said he would also reduce VAT on books to 9%.

On 30 April, more than 50,000 people and companies have applied for a  suspension of loan payments citing the impact of the COVID-19 crisis.

The possibility of a six-month suspension of loan servicing was introduced ten days ago. The governor of the Bulgarian National Bank Dimitar Radev said, in a TV interview, that the number of those who wanted a break on their bank loans was about to rise.

Also, the state promise to pay 60% of the wages of employees of companies who were forced to temporarily close their businesses following the health ministry’s orders, a measure which was extended to media outlets impacted by the health crisis. 

It also confirmed it would grant unsecured interest-free loans of up to BGN 1,500 (€760) for all workers who are on unpaid leave due to the state of emergency, which corresponds to €120 more than the country’s average gross salary.

On 24 April, Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev announced that Bulgaria will request the European Commission to allow the post-2021 European funds for the country to be used in advance – between seven and eight months ahead of the scheduled time.

The government has also been examining whether it is possible to use the money from the rural development programme earlier, despite this being reliant on the EU’s not-yet-adopted MFF (long-term budget). “We are distributing money that is not available at the moment,” Prime Minister Boyko Borissov commented.

On top of that, MPs joined in helping the economy, by renouncing to their salary, albeit after being called by Prime Minister Boyko Borissov.

After obtaining a €2,500 salary increase on 1 April and parliament speaker Tsveta Karayancheva saying the increase was justified so that MPs could donate money to the poor, the prime minister ordered his party, GERD, to vote on a salary freeze the next day, after which the speaker apologised.

Still, ministers, MPs, magistrates and all other high-level officials have been allowed a delay their asset declarations until 15 May, according to one of the amendments of the COVID-19 emergency law proposed by the ruling party GERB. 

Meanwhile, Bulgaria’s tourism sector has also been hit hard.

The country’s tourism ministry is determined to kickstart the tourist season on 1 July, although it has not yet presented concrete plans for opening restaurants, hotels and resorts but continues to be in discussion with the health ministry.

“I am an optimist. We have developed plans that we will present for discussion to the tourism sector,” Tourism Minister Nikolina Angelkova announced on 28 April.

She also urged Bulgarians to pick their country as a holiday destination, particularly since they have recently been going abroad more often, mainly to Greece or Turkey.

Bulgaria’s transport sector is likely to recover slowly from the COVID-19 crisis, Transport Minister Rossen Zhelyazkov said on 15 June.

Zhelyazkov said the government couldn’t replace consumer demand but could create the necessary conditions to boost it and thus support businesses. During the state of emergency which lasted from 13 March to 13 May, a total of 84,500 Bulgarians had lost their job, while 65,500 unemployed people had started work. When it comes to the tourism and transports sector, 17,300 and 5,000 respectively became jobless.

Also, have a look at some of the country’s economic measures:

A series of restriction breaches

In Bulgaria, the military is allowed to stop vehicles and people to implement anti-pandemic measures in cities and at the border. If necessary, it can use physical force or assistive devices until the police arrive.

Police officers, for their part, have the right to access location data stored by mobile operators to detect and isolate quarantined persons.

Bulgaria has introduced heavy fines (€2,500) applicable from 2 April for trespassers, including for those who take a walk in public parks. For Bulgarians who breach quarantine after being abroad, can face up to four years imprisonment and a fine ranging between €5,000 and €25,000.

Still, many citizens breached lockdown measures on a few occasions, including during the Easter holidays.

Just as lockdown measures were first announced, many citizens fled to the Vitosha mountain to visit their holiday homes. Authorities quickly doubled down and banned citizens from leaving cities and towns, including access to Vitosha.

As of the end of the Labour day weekend, on Sunday (3 May), citizens were allowed to go to their holiday homes in Vitosha.

During the Easter holidays, 68,552 people were stopped at the exits of the Bulgarian capital Sofia as they tried to leave the city without being able to prove travel for work or medical care, despite warnings from officials. At the country’s various checkpoints, officials stopped even more people, of which many were fined for not wearing obligatory sanitary masks.

Meanwhile, the national headquarters dealing with the pandemic said on 17 April that an increase in COVID-19 cases was attributed to the breach of confinement rules, as Bulgarians preferred to take advantage of the good weather.

For more on the country’s quarantine measures, check the following:

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Efforts to help the medical sector

On 25 March, the national operational headquarters dealing with the coronavirus has requested that all public and private hospitals to set up coronavirus wards within the next three days, equipped with intensive care units.  

When it comes to medical supplies, Bulgaria participates in the European Commission’s procurement for medical supplies and has received batches of coronavirus tests.  

For masks, Bulgaria has been relying on shipments from China’s National Pharmaceutical Corporation for Foreign Trade, which will be paid using the money from the EU’s operational programme known as “Regions in growth”.

On 28 March, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov had announced that Bulgaria would buy 1.17 million protective masks worth €1.4 million and 50 ventilators worth €1.5 million from China.

A few days later, on 30 March, health authorities had ordered that wearing masks would be mandatory. A day later, they made a U-turn, scrapping the decision, saying that masks were not well-accepted in society and that masks were not always available for sale in pharmacies.

To further assist the medical sector and help authorities struggling with ensuring social distancing is respected across Roma communities in Bulgaria, the government has put in place a drone with a thermal camera developed by a Bulgarian tech company.

The drone is supposed to measure the temperature of those inhabiting the Roma neighbourhood Pobeda in the Black Sea city of Burgas.

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