Saaremaa crisis committee wants western islands restrictions relaxed ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Deserted streets in Saaremaa's capital,  Kuressaare, during the coronavirus pandemic.
Deserted streets in Saaremaa's capital, Kuressaare, during the coronavirus pandemic. Source: Ben Jones

Special restrictions on the western islands of Saaremaa and Muhu are no longer warranted according to the crisis committee of the municipality of Saaremaa, regional newspaper Saarte Hääl reported on Saturday.

The crisis group have written to the government asking them to relax the restrictions which were implemented to stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). The restrictions imposed on the islands are stricter than elsewhere in Estonia due to the rate of infection in Saare County which includes both islands. Rules include stopping the movement between the islands and the mainland.

The crisis committee wants the right to grant special permits to entrepreneurs for moving between the islands and mainland Estonia, to allow residents of Saaremaa and Muhu islands to commute to the mainland for work and to permit access to the islands for people who own property in the region.

The committee is also calling for the termination of stringent movement restrictions imposed on the said islands at the earliest opportunity.

As a priority, the committee requests the right to issue up to 30 special permissions per day for entering and leaving Saaremaa and Muhumaa, citing sustainability of entrepreneurship.

Many residents of the two islands are unable to commute to the mainland due to the crisis, increasing the burden on local government's social sphere, the newspaper reports.

The crisis committee also seeks for everyone owning real estate on the islands according to the Land Register to be able to enter and leave the territories. People registered as residents of the islands should be allowed to commute to the mainland and back without a special permission.

Supplementary restrictions on movement and stay imposed on the islands on March 28 should be terminated as soon as possible.

"The measures have fulfilled their purpose and are no longer needed for curbing the spread of the virus in Saaremaa and Muhu rural municipalities," the crisis committee said, adding that both the committee and entrepreneurs are aware that the lifting of restrictions requires strict adherence to the 2+2 rule and use of personal protective equipment.

Special, stricter, restrictions were applied to the islands after an outbreak of COVID-19 on Saaremaa turned the island into Estonia's coronavirus epicenter. In the last two weeks the island's outbreak has been brought under control and rates of new diagnosis have dropped sharply.

Saaremaa entrepreneurs requesting supplementary aid from state

The newspaper also reported the Visit Saaremaa non-profit organization has turned to the Estonian government on behalf of tourism enterprises and restaurants on Saaremaa, pointing out that if stringent isolation measures are extended on the island until mid-May, supplementary aid is required for the local tourism industry.

CEO of Visit Saaremaa Eveli Jürisson said the islands of Saaremaa and Muhu are in a more difficult situation compared to the mainland as they have also been closed to domestic tourists.

"The islands were closed on March 14 by a decision of the national crisis committee without any prior notice," Jürisson said. "This unexpected and complete isolation did now allow entrepreneurs to develop any crisis plans for communicating the situation to their customers."

The provision of services was thus completely suspended, and customers cancelled their bookings for the upcoming season.

As a priority, entrepreneurs need financial aid for preserving jobs and maintaining their infrastructure. 

"A decision with regard to this should be delivered as quickly as possible," Jurisson said. "We are seeing restrictions reduced in other regions; however, Saare County is at the bottom of this list."

Uncertainty with regard to the future does not allow businesses to make any plans and raises questions if continuing operation is even a option.

With their business activities suspended, tourism and accommodation enterprises, restaurants, smaller service providers and stores will not survive the next low season, which extends the crisis from a couple of months to at least a year.

On Friday, the government agreed to extend the emergency situation until May 18. It was originally scheduled to end this coming Friday, May 1.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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