This past week marked Portugal’s Dia de Liberdade (Freedom Day), which commemorates the April 25th 1974 military coup that toppled a 30 year dictatorship and brought democracy to the country. Many people here remember the times before the Carnation Revolution. It is recent history. Freedom is precious here; it is not taken for granted. Maybe because of this, the Portuguese people have willingly complied with a series of lockdowns that have created hardship for them. They understand that they are doing this for the greater good, that if they all work together, they will pull through.
This week, their sacrifice is bearing fruit. While Portugal is not at the “end of the tunnel,” the light is shining and chasing out the darkness of the past year.
Portugal’s coronavirus “State of Emergency” officially downgrades on April 30th to a “State of Calamity.”
You have to figure something is lost in the translation with the word calamity because, as many people in expat groups have noted, calamity kind of sounds worse. But in the official ranking of things, this is good news.
I entered the country in a window between lockdowns in January. The country has been in continuous lockdown, re-assessed and extended every two weeks, for the past four months. Basically everything was closed with the exception of grocery stores, pharmacies, and medical facilities. Travel between municipalities within the country was banned on weekends. The borders to Spain were closed.
This week, Portugal reported its first day without a COVID-19 death since last August. Here’s hoping that becomes the norm, not the exception.
Since mid-March, Portugal has been cautiously re-opening the country, starting with sending the youngest children back to school and allowing restaurants with outdoor seating to conduct business beyond take-away and delivery.
Yesterday, a friend and I had lunch at the Vilamoura Marina. It is the largest marina in Portugal, home to luxury hotels and luxury yachts, along with a plethora of shops and restaurants. Most of the restaurants have outdoor seating and were open for business. Sadly, most had few customers and the hosts/hostesses were very inviting as you walked past their place of business. This is the first week of business for many of them. Hopefully things will pick up in the coming weeks.
But what a pleasure to sit outside by the water, look at millions of dollars worth of boats, watch the fish swim, listen to music, and be served a delicious lunch. And yes, I went full American with a bacon cheeseburger and fries. (It has been four months since I have had a decent burger and I loved every bite. Unrepentantly.) It is a glimpse of normalcy.
Vilamoura is a destination geared for affluent tourists and retirees. There are six golf courses, a tennis center, four and five star hotels, and, of course, a place to park your 80+ foot yacht. (I didn’t see any yachts with helicopters on them, so you shouldn’t feel too intimidated if yours doesn’t have one.) My friend walks the Marina most mornings with a group of her friends, so she is familiar with the Marina cats (which would be a great name for a band) as well as shop and restaurant owners. They have told her that almost all of their customers are expats—most of the locals have been out of work for months because of the lockdown and don’t have extra money to spend. The Marina shops and restaurants are pricey; the locals probably patronize places where their money goes further.
There are rumors that Portugal will allow vaccinated tourists in this summer. There are rumors that the border with Spain will open. (There’s a Costco in Seville that is about to be swarmed.) If tourism opens up, even if it’s just for vaccinated tourists, it will be a jumpstart for the Portuguese economy, especially for The Algarve. July and August are the big months here.
Currently, approximately 35% of the population has received their first jab of the vaccine. The government has the capacity to ramp up vaccinations to 100,000 jabs per day, as long as they can get supplies of the vaccine. If that can happen (and that’s a big if), an additional 6 million people can receive their first shot in the next two months, before the July/August tourism rush. That’s almost the entire population of Portugal. This is a best case scenario, of course. More likely, Portugal will reach about a 60% vaccination rate. There are talks of giving as many people as possible the initial jab before going back around for the second, as Canada and the UK are doing.
People have asked if the vaccines are limited to Portuguese citizens at this point and the answer is no. They are vaccinating everyone—citizen or not—according to age and health status. This is their number one priority. There are announcements every day updating people on the number of vaccines delivered, the number of people inoculated. The transparency is amazing and refreshing.
What I am seeing in Portugal is a country that is working together to ensure their future. Maybe that’s what I want to see. I’m an outsider still; I may only be seeing a small part of the whole. But I do see progress being made, in big ways and small. Like having lunch on a deck overlooking the sea.