Istanbul residents defy virus rules on first weekend out

Parks and beaches crowded with people prompted a warning from Turkey's Health Minister after restrictions eased

Men enjoy a sunny weather by the Marmara Sea following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 7, 2020. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
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Istanbul residents flocked to the city's parks and beaches on the first weekend since the coronavirus lockdown lifted, prompting a reprimand from the country's health minister who warned that the Covid-19 pandemic still poses a threat.

Images shared on social media and in the news showed crowds picnicking and partying on Saturday night with little regard for social distancing guidelines or the requirement to wear masks.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted "let's not normalise too much", urging people to wear masks and keep their distance.

Restaurants, cafes, gyms, parks, beaches and museums began reopening on Monday in Turkey and domestic flights resumed.

A decision by the Interior Ministry to continue a weekend curfew in 15 provinces, including Istanbul, was overturned on Friday by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with a series of tweets.

Mr Erdogan said he was reversing the decision on the grounds that it would "lead to different social and economic consequences."

Turkey has confirmed 4,669 deaths from Covid-19 and 169,218 cases since the first infections were reported in the country on March 11.

The virus spread rapidly through all 81 provinces of the country, which looked set to be one of the worst-hit in the world.

However strict restrictions helped contain the spread of the pandemic, including sealing off major cities and implementing weekend curfews.

In late May, Turkish authorities declared “mission accomplished” against the virus, saying investment in the healthcare system, free treatment and a science-led approach had contained the outbreak.  

Last month, the opening of two new hospitals for coronavirus patients in Istanbul coincided with a decline in the number of new cases.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has described the pandemic as the “biggest crisis since the Second World War in terms of the economic impact,” cancelled plans last week to reimpose lockdowns in major cities to avoid further damage to the economy.

Mr Erdogan scrapped the proposal even after the number of coronavirus cases jumped by almost 1,000 on Thursday, compared with about 700 in previous days. His announcement came about 12 hours after the Interior Ministry unexpectedly announced curfews would resume in Istanbul, Ankara and 13 other municipalities last weekend.

“It has been understood that the decision would lead to some social and economic consequences,” Mr Erdogan said in a Twitter post last Friday.

The International Monetary Fund forecasts Turkey’s economy may shrink 5 per cent this year as a result of measures taken to contain the spread of the pandemic.

As the restrictions ease, people aged 65 and older and minors are still barred from leaving their homes except for at allotted times during the week.