Moscow Mayor’s Tough Virus Stance May Hasten Russia Lockdown

Evgenia Pismennaya and Henry Meyer

(Bloomberg) --

As Russia steps up its fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has emerged as the leading voice for ever harsher measures that may become the model for locking down the country.

Sobyanin has ordered restaurants, bars, parks and most stores in Europe’s largest capital city to close temporarily from Saturday and urged Muscovites to stay home. Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin embraced his approach on Friday, saying measures adopted by Moscow “should extend to all regions” of Russia as the number of declared coronavirus cases passed 1,000.

“We need tough restrictions,” to ensure Russians stay at home during a planned shutdown of most workplaces next week, Mishustin said at a televised meeting with Sobyanin and other top officials charged with containing the outbreak. “We managed to win time thanks to preventative measures.”

President Vladimir Putin gave Russians a week of paid leave in his first televised speech on the Covid-19 threat on Wednesday, while also promising benefits to help companies and individuals through the crisis.

On Friday, however, the Kremlin walked back the decision amid reports that some Russians planned to travel to the country’s vacation spots or visit relatives, taking advantage of reduced domestic air fares offered by the state airline Aeroflot. Mishustin ordered all Russia’s parks and resorts to shut down.

Police Enforcement

Sobyanin sent a message via email to residents of the Russian capital on Saturday morning with a list of instructions -- without any mention of police enforcement -- similar to those applicable in European cities under lockdown. These include limiting going out from home to essential shopping at stores, short walks with family members or journeys to and from work.

Russia on Saturday reported 228 new cases of coronavirus overnight, bringing the total to 1,264, with four deaths attributed to the virus.

Authorities in Moscow are seriously considering shutting down the city, said four people familiar with discussions on the subject. A Moscow government representative declined to comment.

Center Stage

The president has allowed Sobyanin, a former Kremlin chief of staff who’s led the city of 12.7 million since 2010, to take center stage in advocating intensifying restrictions to head off the greatest public health challenge of Putin’s 20-year rule.

“They’re playing good cop and bad cop,” said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. “Putin is doling out goodies while Sobyanin is in charge of taking unpopular measures.”

Until recently, officials have ruled out a lockdown adopted by governments in the worst-afflicted European countries of Italy and Spain as well as in France and the U.K.. Putin’s top public health official, Anna Popova, on Monday called the measure unnecessary.

But while Russia’s patient numbers are well below the levels in those countries, Putin made his address to the nation a day after Sobyanin warned him that the official figures understated the true scale of the outbreak and that Moscow had nearly twice as many cases in reality.

Nikolai Malyshev, a leading infectious diseases specialist in the Health Ministry, warned on state TV this week that Russia is readying itself for an “explosive development like a nuclear reaction” with the coronavirus epidemic. In the near future, “large numbers of people will fall ill and need medical treatment,” he said.

Despite Moscow’s gradual tightening of restrictions, the city so far has remained free of the home confinement imposed in other capitals including Paris, London, Rome and Madrid. The subway is open, even if traffic last week was down by half, and until Saturday there were plenty of cars on the roads.

The World Health Organization’s representative in Russia, Melita Vujnovic, said Thursday that if Muscovites and others across the country exercise self-discipline and stay home, then officials may avoid imposing strict quarantine.

“If it becomes necessary, I am sure they will take this measure,” she said.

(Updates with Moscovites told to stay home in sixth paragraph, new cases in seventh.)

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