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Mihhail Kõlvart: Life cannot be put on hold for a second time

Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center).
Tallinn Mayor Mihhail Kõlvart (Center). Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Mayor of Tallinn Mihhail Kõlvart has appeared to be swimming upstream to the government in the crisis. Is that really the case? He finds that wearing protective masks should not be made mandatory in Estonia. And that while the virus returning in autumn would require people to follow strict rules, life cannot be put on hold for a second time.

Do you, as mayor of Tallinn, disagree with the government in terms of how we should reopen society?

This [the government's] crisis exit strategy is indicative and conditional – no one is able to say for sure how things will turn out and how we'll be lifting restrictions.

Tallinn has opted for a slightly different approach.

We will make concrete decisions where clear messages are needed for planning purposes irrespective of whether we're looking at a positive or negative trend.

For example, when Minister of Education and Research Mailis Reps said that limited contact study will return to Estonian schools in mid-May, you said Tallinn will maintain distance learning until the end of the academic year and children will not be returning to schoolhouses.

Yes, our signal is concrete.

When the ministry communicated that every school would get to decide how to organize study, schools in Tallinn were confused in terms of how that would work and who would be responsible should something happen. These questions were put to our education department and the city government.

Because the ministry gave schools and local governments the chance to decide, we did. Also, to make it possible for schools to plan their activities for the rest of the academic year. And for there to be a universal approach for all Tallinn schools.

It would be unthinkable in the conditions of an epidemic for every school to make its own decisions in a major city.

You and Mailis Reps are both deputy chairmen of the ruling Center Party. Do you not talk to one another, have you not asked Reps to lay down universal rules for all Estonian schools?

It cannot be ruled out that a different approach could suit smaller towns or rural municipalities that only have one school. That is why the ministry will allow local governments to decide for themselves. And we decided in favor of a universal approach in Tallinn.

We will see come May whether it will be possible to allow additional types of study from mid-May – tutoring, face-to-face consultations, but even then, there will have to be clear rules. Having ten kids in the same classroom is out of the question. We are talking about one-on-one time.

One teacher and one student?

Yes. And even then, both will need to be wearing personal protective gear. But something like this cannot be mandatory. If the teacher – many of whom belong to risk groups – does not want to take such a risk, it will not happen.

Therefore, the decision we've made together is to retain distance learning in Tallinn schools until the end of the academic year even if [nationwide] restrictions should be relaxed.

Should restrictions be relaxed now?

The emergency situation will likely be extended, which is what we have to go on. The easing of measures needs to be planned as simply lifting all restrictions at once is unthinkable.

I can see a dangerous coeffect of circumstances where people are tired of restrictions, the weather is beautiful and we are hearing positive signals of alleviation and exiting the crisis. The results of this have already manifested.

People are out and about.

Indeed. The number of children who attend kindergarten, public transport passenger figures – they're all growing. If at the beginning of the emergency situation we had on average 1,200 children attend kindergarten, the number has now grown to 1,800 (Tallinn has a total of 22,000 preschoolers). More and more people are taking public transport too.

Does that worry you?

It worries me a great deal. People are beginning to feel that the danger has passed, which is very dangerous in itself. We are seeing the first results of that, when there was a slight uptick in the number of new cases in Tallinn.

Should wearing protective masks in closed public spaces be made mandatory?

(Smiles) It would obviously yield results were it possible to police. You protect yourself and others, even though you're mostly protecting others because protecting oneself from the virus would require a respirator that are not available. Another piece of the reality today.

Another thing is that the price of masks isn't exactly attractive at the moment.

We cannot realistically require people to wear masks, while we should make efforts to popularize it.

Next to positive signals, people need to be told that the epidemic has not disappeared and that we will have to live with it for the foreseeable future.

Will we lock down society again should the virus return in autumn?

Our goal right now is to prevent a new wave inside the current epidemic. We are on relatively thin ice here.

Let us presume it will be fine in the summer, while the virus will return in fall.

That is another problem. A new wave would likely see even worse consequences and the virus acting differently.

How long can we keep putting society on ice?

We have an opportunity today that we did not have two months ago. The chance to prepare the public sector and people. Also, strategically. We can analyze how we should be acting and whether new restrictions would be in order.

While everyone would vote restrictions right now, I propose coming up with strict rules, ensuring protective equipment for every person (masks that would really help keep people safe) and keeping society going – working and living – simply under new conditions. There would be new limitations, but we will not be putting life on hold again.

We should consider such a strategy for which we'll have some time now.

How often have you talked to Prime Minister Jüri Ratas about exiting the emergency situation and alleviating restrictions?

We discuss the situation regularly, while we do not discuss measures that often. We spoke quite often in the more hectic stages of the emergency situation.

You have sent several letters to Stenbock House over the last 40 days. You sent PM Ratas a bunch of proposals, including a two-week quarantine for people coming from high-risk areas and a ban on mass events, in the afternoon of March 12 when the emergency situation had not been declared yet. Did you feel public pressure was a last resort?

I tried to communicate messages through various channels.

First of all, it seems to me it served as a good example for other local governments to react quickly and come up with proposals in the crisis situation.

Secondly, it was a message not only to my fellow centrists but also our partners in the coalition.

Thirdly, it was a message to society that the situation was serious.

The letter was rather in support of the government and the prime minister…

For an emergency situation to be declared?

Yes. It demonstrated that Tallinn expected and was prepared for an emergency.

You sent the PM another public letter on March 24 where you sought additional restrictions on movement and for restaurants. Why couldn't you have called the PM, who is the chairman of your party, or sent him an email?

We are all working on dozens of things simultaneously in a crisis.

This is how our [Tallinn] crisis committee meetings usually work. There are decisions that can be operatively executed, decisions that need further discussion, decisions that need to be coordinated with the government and finally decisions only the government can make. We phrase our position and send it to the government regarding the latter. This does not rule out phone calls and conversations.

You are not planning on running for chairman at the next party congress?


It seems to me that this is not the time for domestic political struggle and conjuring up tensions. The same goes for in-house affairs on the party level.

We have managed to mobilize ourselves quite successfully as a society and state in the grand scheme of things. We were not really prepared for an epidemic or an economic crisis, but who was? South Korea perhaps. It took a little time, but decisions were made, activities launched, with the central and local governments demonstrating operative behavior.

We have not exited the crisis yet, we need to stick together and maintain solidarity in society. We will need it as we are headed toward hard times and a lot of people will need support and help once the economic crisis hits, which, unfortunately, is a good position for creating domestic tensions…

Mihhail Kõlvart, will you be running for party chairman at the Center Party congress or not?

That is precisely why I have no such plan at this time. I see no need nor have any desire for it.

You wanted a representative of Tallinn city government put on the government's coronavirus crisis committee in your letter to Ratas from March 12, while this did not happen. Why is that?

That is something I find difficult to comment on. Tallinn makes up a third of the country, not just in terms of population but also its effect on the economy. Therefore, it seemed sensible to me, but the [committee's] work organization principles did not provide such an opportunity.

Tallinn will get €5 million for investments from the state's crisis budget. What is that a sign of, looking at the volume of the entire aid package?

The entire pot is €130 million, while we got roughly €30 million altogether. Naturally, we would prefer to proceed based on simple mathematics – 30 percent of the pot would be something other than €30 million. However, Tallinn is grateful for the aid and ready to follow the principle of solidarity.

That is the general philosophical approach.

The other approach is more practical. I hope this is not the last aid package. It needs to be realized that while Tallinn is the largest and wealthiest local government, it will also take the worst of the crisis backlash, suffer the most damage and feel the worst effects.

Tallinn will be hit hard in the crisis –hotels closed, tourists missed, conferences and concerts canceled, restaurants empty or closed…

The logic behind long-term strategies cannot be simply linear and needs to go deeper than that. We need to realize that Tallinn not doing well will impact everything. Yes, larger cities, including Tallinn, have more opportunities, but this crisis will also hurt major cities the most.

What does it mean that you expect a greater contribution in the form of state aid?

It is not greed or simply the desire to secure more funding for the capital. We all want to exit the crisis faster and Tallinn is the locomotive here.

While I understand the logic that suggests Tallinn is big and can take care of itself and we should help smaller places, in a situation where Tallinn was not doing well for lack of support, only helping smaller local governments would not improve the general picture.

The day that marks the end of European battles in World War II is in two and a half weeks. You have urged people to cancel May 9 gatherings this year. To what extent will they listen?

It was suggested we should wait and see whether emergency situation measures would be extended or whether they would end on May 1.

But it doesn't matter. Emergency situation or not, the epidemic will not disappear in three weeks. Such a gathering would clearly be risky and spark serious protest in society during an epidemic.

That is why we decided that the sooner we tell people, the better and to explain why such a gathering would not be right. It seems to me that it has been largely understood and the response has rather been positive.

That people for whom this day is important can just light a candle at home instead of showing up at the Bronze Soldier monument?

I heard similar proposals. My message was that if this day and remembering the victims of WW2 is part of someone's identity, it cannot be measured in the number of carnations. It needs to go deeper and manifest in helping elderly people, the victims of WW2. They need help. Only then can we say this identity is real and not just a façade.

When will Tallinn open playgrounds?


Do you remember an interview I gave next to a cordoned off playground when we decided to close them? It was a sad sight – a playground wrapped in do not cross tape, with abandoned toys lying around…

It is a sad sight.

It is, but it would be worse if we had more infected people, also children.

I can say today that we will not be reopening playgrounds before the emergency situation is over.

What about sports facilities?

The same.

When will life return to the Tallinn Old Town?

Answering your questions, I feel like the embodiment of all evil. We will not open them! We will not allow it! Close it down! No events!

People want their freedoms back.

And I am giving answers they don't want to hear. Not really sensible behavior for a politician…

There will be no major events. Unfortunately, we also cannot expect any tourists this summer.

Regarding restrictions, Tallinn city government remains conservative rather than optimistic. We will not be rushing them. Because it is better to wait for another week than have to return to measures for two or three months.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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