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for The Sunday Times

Published in print and online, this blog post for The Sunday Times engaged hundreds of thousands of readers in the UK and abroad

At the end of June a black-clad elderly woman approached me outside my local pharmacy in Nicosia. “Please,” she begged. “Do you have a spare mask? I can’t go inside to buy a mask without already wearing one.”

She was, judging by her dress and thick accent, from one of Cyprus’s remote mountain villages and visiting the capital for the day. She’d been caught out by yet another change to the Covid restrictions.

On June 1 the government scrapped the last of our Covid measures, but by June 28, the day before I met the woman, the mandatory use of facemasks in pharmacies, testing sites and other places deemed high-risk in terms of transmission was reintroduced. Just seven days later, thanks to a sixfold increase in cases over the course of the week, the indoor mask mandate was reinstated. On July 5 facemasks were once again made compulsory in enclosed spaces.

It’s a highly unpopular decision and few care enough to comply. Cyprus has experienced a level of regulation that has shocked friends and family in the UK over the past few years. We had lockdowns, of course; three in total, but there was also a time when restaurants and bars were open to the public but, bizarrely, parks were closed.

We also had a strange text-message system that permitted just two outside visits a day, subject to SMS approval: text 3 for a visit to the supermarket, 4 if you are collecting your kids, and then wait for a reply. More than once we’ve had a full-on nightly curfew — sometimes starting at nine in the evening, sometimes at eleven. At one point there was even a ban on intercity travel, a constraint that taught me a patio paddling pool could never replace dips in the Mediterranean. Police spot checks — common at the start of the pandemic — have decreased.

Last year office workers and shop managers lived in fear of a raid, and fines for noncompliance with mask-wearing were common (though rarely paid). Now it’s only pharmacies and testing sites that strictly adhere to the rules.

In Nicosia a mask worn over the mouth is deemed acceptable. In the tourist-filled coastal towns of Ayia Napa,  Limassol, Paphos and Larnaca, a mask hanging loose round the neck is the norm — especially among international  visitors who don’t want to cover their faces in 40C. And boy does Cyprus need to keep its visitors happy.

The tourist industry employs hundreds of thousands of locals, who were all heavily impacted when visitor arrivals plummeted from four million a year pre-pandemic to just over half a million in 2020. Thankfully this rose in 2021 to 1.5m and, by 2022, the relaxing of measures resulted in more than 500,000 visitors to the island in the first quarter of the year alone.

At the beginning of last month life was finally set to return to normal. Friends even came home from Nissi Beach irked by the crowds. Certain areas, like the Brit-favourite Paphos, had a remarkable recovery — especially compared to Limassol, which was until recently filled with wealthy Russians.

As arrivals soared, though, the positive Covid-test rate spiked. And while it was easy to blame the tourists, a more probable cause was locals’ pandemic fatigue. We residents were raring to get out and about, free of fear and facemasks.

In the past month alone I’ve visited Fig Tree Bay beach four times, twice been to my favourite coastal seafood restaurant, Kalamies (famed for its sunsets and calamari), and taken a weekend break to Protaras in eastern Cyprus, in a villa with bougainvillea cascading over the pool.

We’re definitely not back at square one yet, but there has been another step in an uncertain direction; what, we wonder, will happen next? The government has vowed there will be no more lockdowns, but they’ve broken pandemic promises before.

Just in case, I’ve put my August break to Paphos’s Elysium Hotel on hold. I’ve also liberated my paddling pool from the shed. And — one for the dear old ladies — I’ve filled my handbag with facemasks.

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