Finance minister: Churches in Ida-Viru County working a morale booster

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Finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) was deputizing for Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center), who is quarantining, at the Riigikogu Wednesday. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

Sporting and leisure activities will cease in Ida-Viru County, and the border with Russia will be largely closed, finance minister Martin Helme (EKRE) said at the Riigikogu Wednesday, following the latest round of government restrictions announced the same day. Churches will continue to function at 50 percent occupancy, Helme said, and have an exemption from the new measures.

Those measures will include closing the border fully to private citizens, between Estonia and the Russian Federation – Ida-Viru County borders Russia and a major crossing point is located at Narva – as well as lock-down on leisure and entertainment centers and an enforcement of the 50 percent occupancy rule in stores.

The border between Estonia and Russia will only be open for trade and commercial journeys, i.e. trucks etc.

Ida-Viru County's 14-day coronavirus rate per 100,000 people currently stands at over 900, around double that of the next-most heavily affected counties, Harju and Tartu.

Answering questions at the Riigikogu and deputizing for Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center), who is quarantining after coming into contact with a COVID-19 carrier, finance minister Martin Helme said: "We plan to suspend leisure activities, all public events: cinemas, theaters, concerts, museums, exhibitions."

Government ministers do not sit in parliament, but must regularly appear there to answer questions.

Helme added that catering establishments could only sell food (i.e. not drinks), with sports clubs, swimming pools, spas and hotels closed for the rest of 2020.

Responding to a question from Social Democratic Party (SDE) MP Katri Raik, Helme said that the government will also be compensating businesses forced to close, but not to the full extent of the lost custom.

"This does not mean that all their lost income or all turnover will be compensated, but some kind of compensation mechanism, similar to the spring, is planned," Helme added.

Stricter monitoring of the 50 percent rule and other precautions such as disinfectant provision, in stores, churches and other institutions will also be stepped up, Helme added, though they would be open over the Christmas period (Russian Orthodox Christmas is in early January – ed.).

Helme: Churches must continue to function for sake of morale during festive season

Helme said full lock-down was not desirable.

In response to a question from SDE MP Jevgeni Ossinovski as to why churches were exempt, Helme said they were not the one and only exception to the rules.

Helme said: "Cultural and sports institutions are, in the same way, differentiated via the argument that yes, there is a risk of infection present, but for reason or another, it is necessary to take this risk for society to function."

Ida-Viru County has a large proportion of Russian-speaking inhabitants, whose religion if anything is usually Russian Orthodox; as reported on ERR News a convent in the county recently found it was the epicenter of another COVID-19 outbreak.

Helme said that the government and society had had a "very negative experience" in spring, when the churches were closed, which, given the festive season, it was desirable to avoid for the sake of people's mental health.

What other exceptions Helme said there were was not reported, though family members at otherwise one-to-one sports training or hobby tuition, activities for children with special needs and training and (spectator-less) competition for professional athletes are some of them.

Wednesday's raft of restrictions will also see all schools, universities and other educational establishments break up for the Christmas holidays early, from December 14.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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