Last week, many of the lockdown restrictions lifted in Portugal and, after almost three months of living here, I am catching a glimpse of the daily life I imagined when I decided to move abroad.
There are still plenty of restrictions and precautions in place: Restaurants are only allowed to use outdoor seating, no more than four people to a table, only stores that open directly onto the street can open (not, for example, stores in malls). Masks still need to be worn, of course. The number of people allowed in shops and offices is limited and you see people queued at the doors. But kids are back in schools, more businesses are open, more people are on the sidewalks. There is an energy I had not seen up to now. It could possibly be that spring is also here—the temperatures are in the high 60s, low 70s—and spending time outside is just part of normal activities for people, just as it is in the States.
Yesterday, I spent several hours at a restaurant with two new friends, telling stories over a late breakfast and many coffees. (The bill came to about €23 for the three of us, in case you’re wondering.) It felt good to sit in a restaurant and just have a meal. The restaurant itself wasn’t busy and the waitress, while attentive, did not hover or hound us to move.
The big deal is that we can travel between municipalities now. I hope to see beyond Albufeira, lovely as it is. I suspect that I will have to get any side trips in quickly. As eager as Portugal is to open up the country for business (tourist season starts in earnest in May), the government wants to keep people safe. The border with Spain is still closed. Flights into Portugal are still being cancelled. Not all, which makes it more difficult for people who live here or who are moving here permanently to be confident that they can get in.
The Pandemic’s Effect on Tourism
Transmission rates and case numbers are closely monitored. The current lockdown was kept in place through the Easter weekend in order to prevent a repeat of the surge caused by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. If Covid rates rise again, I have no doubt that the government will respond with another lockdown. This is a pattern that will most likely repeat until vaccinations roll out through the general population.
There is a 50/50 chance that Portugal’s tourist season will be shortened this year. It may be missed altogether. The majority of tourists come from the UK, followed by Spain. The UK, with a population of almost 67 million people, is on schedule with the first injection delivered into the arms of about half its population. They hope to have the entire over-18 population fully vaccinated by the end of July. Spain has vaccinated about 8% of its population, mostly in the over 80 age group and people at high risk. Currently, Spain expects to have about half of its population (47 million people) fully inoculated by late July. If tourism is depending on “vaccine passports” the season may not start until then. But it’s better than no season at all.
There is Progress
Portugal itself is vaccinating just under 50,000 people per day. They would like to be giving 100,000 jabs per day, but getting the supply they have ordered has been slow. The pace should pick up over the next few weeks, but I don’t see the government opening up the country to tourists (or at least unvaccinated tourists) until the majority of the population has been vaccinated. I could be wrong, but so far the government has been willing to take an economic hit to keep the people safe. I appreciate that. Once I have a permanent address, I will sign up with the local health department to get in line for a vaccine. I’m a guest in this country; I am definitely NOT going to push ahead of any Portuguese citizen.
Many of the hotels here seem empty or not yet open for business. I don’t know if they shut down for the winter or if there’s just not enough visitors to warrant staying open. Many resorts close for periods of time during the off-season, but I have been here since January and have seen little coming and going from the larger hotels. Judging from Airbnb pricing, independent owners believe there will be a season. Many have bookings for July and August. Whether or not people will actually arrive is up in the air.
But for now, there is a feeling of optimism in the air. The sun is shining. The temperatures are warming up. There are sailboats on the horizon. After three months, I’m beginning to see the real Algarve. It is worth the wait.