Russia’s COVID-19 outlier The Yaroslavl region is reopening businesses and allowing people to leave their homes, rising number of coronavirus cases be damned
The Yaroslavl region is one of the few places left in Russia (along with the Tver and Tula regions and the Nenets Autonomous Okrug) where the local authorities’ containment measures against the spread of coronavirus haven’t gone beyond verbal recommendations to self-isolate. For weeks, Yaroslavl’s incidence rate of COVID-19 was one of the lowest in the country, but the number of cases spiked in mid-April, roughly around the time that major enterprises started returning to work after a mandatory three-week shutdown and beauty salons, car washes, and other small- and medium-sized businesses began reopening. The authorities say the situation is under control, but the local opposition argues that Governor Dmitry Mironov — Vladimir Putin’s ex-security guard and a former deputy interior minister — lacks the necessary experience and understanding to respond properly to the coronavirus crisis.
In search of the “middle ground”
Yaroslavl Governor Dmitry Mironov signed an executive order imposing containment measures against the spread of coronavirus on March 18, a day after the region recorded its first case of COVID-19 in a 40-year-old resident who’d recently returned from the Dominican Republic. The governor banned all public events of more than 50 people, suspended schools, and urged employers to tell their staff to self-isolate. Mironov also created a gubernatorial task force, which began meeting daily to discuss additional measures.
Further steps were needed within a week: on March 28, Mironov closed down shopping malls, nightclubs, movie theaters, beauty salons, and all restaurants (though take-out orders are still allowed). The governor also ordered all people in the region over the age of 65 to self-isolate. In a separate amendment to his executive orders, Mironov canceled hunting season, “so no one is tempted to violate self-isolation, including residents in neighboring regions.”
Since then, Yaroslavl’s authorities haven’t officially added any new containment measures. Unlike in other regions, the governor’s self-isolation instructions were merely shared on social media on March 31 and never formalized in an executive order. Mironov advised residents to maintain a social distance of at least 1.5 meters (5 feet) in public spaces and stay home “except for good reasons, like seeking emergency medical care, shopping at grocery stores and pharmacies, taking out the trash, walking pets, and commuting to work.” A day before Mironov published these recommendations, Yaroslavl’s first coronavirus patient was discharged after making a full recovery and just three other people (two locals and one Muscovite) were in the hospital with COVID-19.
“Today we face a dilemma: How do we safeguard people’s health and lives without destroying the economy? If we cease manufacturing processes, the region will struggle to fulfill its social obligations, not to mention its development projects. That’s why we’re looking for balance — for a middle ground,” Dmitry Mironov explained in a Facebook post on April 12. Responding to comments, the governor noted people’s “sharply diverging” reactions to the spread of coronavirus. “After learning about the new cases, some want the region closed down and isolated completely, while others believe you shouldn’t stop living because of a small number of patients,” said the governor.
In early April, Mironov allowed 55 “essential enterprises” to resume operations. These businesses included the Yaroslavl Motor Plant, the pharmaceutical company “R-Pharm,” the brewery “Yarpivo,” the Yaroslavl Radio Plant, and other companies. Staffed by skeleton crews, daycares also partially reopened to take in children whose parents were permitted to return to work. A week later, Governor Mironov celebrated the return to normalcy, declaring that there was “no surge in new cases,” and ever since his administration has gradually lifted restrictions on a growing number of organizations — starting with construction companies, dry cleaners and laundromats, manufacturers of children’s goods, and national defense contractors, before moving on to small businesses.
More and more infected
Spokespeople for Yaroslavl’s coronavirus task force told Meduza that the region’s authorities “are trying to maintain a balance between sustaining revenue for local social spending, supporting entrepreneurs (including small- and medium-sized business owners) as much as possible, and at the same time safeguarding the health and wellbeing of the region’s residents.” Officials also noted that experts believe the outbreak still hasn’t peaked “and the region is preparing as much as possible for any scenario.”
Since the start of the pandemic, officials in the Yaroslavl region have said the coronavirus situation is under control. Until mid-April, the number of locally confirmed COVID-19 cases was in fact persistently low. By April 9, for example, the Yaroslavl region had recorded just 13 infections.
More recently, however, there’s been a surge of new coronavirus cases in Yaroslavl. On April 15, a dozen people in the region tested positive for COVID-19, raising the total number of cases to 39. By April 22 (when local laboratories were now testing residents’ samples), the number of coronavirus infections in the Yaroslavl region reached 228 people. That same day, Governor Mironov announced the region’s first death caused by COVID-19. Two more coronavirus patients are now on ventilators and another is receiving oxygen support.
“Initially, there were cases brought in from outside. Now, of course, there’s already community transmission. Unfortunately, most aren’t taking the recommendations seriously, which is why people are being infected. Some are taking in guests from other regions and countries and others are going on vacations themselves, and that’s why we’re seeing these results,” officials in Yaroslavl’s Health Department told Meduza. The region has required COVID-19 testing for everyone who was recently abroad or in contact with international travelers, as well as suspected pneumonia patients. Swabs are collected at state-run outpatient clinics and the tests are processed at Yaroslavl’s Health and Epidemiology Center.
Since April 17, beauty salons, car dealerships, car wash centers, veterinary clinics, pawnshops, notary offices, and other businesses across the Yaroslavl region have reopened. Governor Mironov says beauty salons were the most vocal about lobbying the government for permission to return to work. These enterprises can only admit customers by appointment, they have to provide masks and gloves, and facilities’ allowed occupancy has been cut in half. “If we see that these requirements are being ignored, we’ll have to cancel the easing of containment measures,” Mironov warned in a Facebook post on April 16.
A Meduza correspondent visited one of the barbershops in Yaroslavl on the day it reopened. Most of the staff were not wearing masks and customers were offered coffee in reused ceramic mugs, though there was hand sanitizer available at the front desk. Alyona Katan, who manages the “OK, Kroshka!” nail salon, told Meduza that many clients “asked to be admitted behind closed doors” when the lockdown order was still in effect. Katan says her salon turned them away, and it’s still turning away business. “We call clients a day in advance to find out how they’re feeling. We ask them to check their temperatures before coming in and again before we get started,” she explains. Katan’s salon mesures employees and customers for fevers throughout the day. If anyone spikes a temperature higher than 37 degrees Celsius (99.7 degrees Fahrenheit), they’re sent home from work or denied services.
Even with the green light from the governor, not all beauty salons in Yaroslavl have rushed to return to business as usual. Evgeniya Stepanova, the founder of the “Onemorename” studio, started taking reservations again on April 17, when Mironov lifted restrictions, but a day later she shared a video on Instagram, declaring “WE MADE A MISTAKE,” where she said reservations would again come to a halt. “After the local authorities decided to [re]open the beauty industry, I decided, despite financial and possibly reputational risks, that the health of our team and our clients is more important to me,” Stepanova told Meduza. She says her staff of a dozen employees has always favored “a full quarantine” and wanted to stay home. “Of course, I didn’t make this decision blindly. Well before these ‘long holidays,’ I was looking for ways to restructure the business according to the new realities and find ways to make money with our doors shut to the public. Other countries’ experiences showed that we can’t avoid a quarantine,” says Stepanova. Her salon has launched an online cosmetics store and developed a series of self-care kits clients can apply at home.
“Muscovites have flooded our city”
On April 18, a day before Orthodox Easter, police set up a checkpoint at the entrance into Pereslavl-Zalessky, the town in the Yaroslavl region that’s closest to Moscow. Many Muscovites own property here and visit on weekends or vacations. Together with several regulatory agencies, the office of the local mayor, Valery Astrakhantsev, distributed leaflets to the arriving motorists ordering them to self-isolate for 14 days and report their stay by calling a special hotline.
On his Facebook page, Pereslavl and Uglich Diocese Archbishop Feoktist Igumnov warned Moscow residents that they probably wouldn’t be able to attend Easter services in the area; local churches and monasteries had lists of regular parishioners whom they planned to admit on Easter night. The lists proved to be unnecessary, however. Igumnov told Meduza that the only worshippers who ended up attending service “were those we knew by sight, and there were fewer of them than the people whose names were on the list.” The diocese also held extra services to reduce crowd sizes, “so there were fewer people than the ‘distancing marks‘ on the floor,” Igumnov explained.
Many in Pereslavl-Zalessky say the traffic checkpoint wasn’t enough. In comments on social media, Yaroslavl regional parliament member Sergey Kahbibulin has repeatedly advocated a town quarantine. Concerns about Muscovites spreading coronavirus to the region have manifested offline, as well. “Everyone here is complaining about the Muscovites. They’ve flooded our town. They go around without masks, who knows where — they’re everywhere. You see cars with Moscow plates parked outside stores and even the tough old ladies are afraid to go inside,” a Pereslavl-Zalessky resident named Elena Izotova told Meduza. “They should have closed the town as soon as they found out about coronavirus,” she says.
Glancing at the streets in Yaroslavl today, there are noticeably fewer cars than usual. But the number of pedestrians seems greater than ever. When shopping at stores, people try to keep their distance from each other. There’s hand sanitizer in some places. Locals generally support stricter containment measures, but only on the condition that the state introduces additional benefits and entitlements. “Personally, the absence of people infuriates me, as a business owner. There’s hardly anybody and there’s zero state support. But if the authorities would support the public and businesses, then I’d support stricter measures,” said Dmitry Chevain, who co-owns a shawarma stand. The entrepreneurs who spoke to Meduza said their rents have been discounted during the coronavirus pandemic, but their landlords are all private individuals.
Dmitry Mironov has been at the helm in Yaroslavl since 2016. An “outsider” to the region, he previously served as deputy head of Russia’s Interior Ministry and worked as a security guard for President Putin in the Federal Protective Service. According to Oleg Vinogradov, the leader of the regional branch of the opposition party Yabloko, Mironov spends most of his time in Moscow and only appears in Yaroslavl during short visits. These allegations haven’t abated during the coronavirus pandemic: Vinogradov says he cannot verify that Governor Mironov has been working in Yaroslavl at all in the past several weeks.
On April 3, Mironov signed an executive order that transferred the authority to manage regional efforts against coronavirus to the Yaroslavl government cabinet. And that was it. “Technically speaking, Mironov is head of the government, too, but publicly [cabinet chairman Dmitry] Stepanenko answers for everything,” a source in Yaroslavl’s regional parliament told Meduza, attributing Mironov’s weak containment response to “a lack of experience and understanding of how to respond to a crisis, as well as a literal physical absence in the workplace and reluctance to make any decisions at all.”
On April 22, officials in Yaroslavl announced that the region plans to join a federal system for issuing digital permits to track residents’ movements, based on the system Moscow introduced on April 15. At the same time, Yaroslavl’s authorities have not explained how they will reconcile digital passes with the fact that the region has not formally required residents to self-isolate.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock