Turkey reopens economy as daily new COVID-19 cases fall

Linda J. Dodson

ISTANBUL — Turkey reopened its economy on Monday, with many restaurants and cafes back in business. The government has reported fewer than 1,000 novel coronavirus cases a day recently, compared with around 5,000 a day in early April.

A restaurant in the heart of Istanbul’s business district illustrates the reopening. On Monday morning, it was scrambling to arrange socially distant seating and supply customers with disinfectant to comply with last-minute government regulations. The new seating arrangements mean the cafe can serve only half as many customers as before.

Ercument Arslan, who manages the restaurant, said: “I hope that as the number of daily cases slows down, the government will let us work at full capacity in a month and customers will fill the tables again by July.”

The government announced the opening of barber shops and shopping malls on May 11 as the first phase of normalization. Many malls opted to stay closed however, putting off their reopening until June 1. That day authorities lifted a ban on travel between 15 cities, approved the restart of domestic flights and the reopening of public swimming pools. Government workers were also back at their offices.

Beaches and museums are open, and sailboat tours are on again, as the government looks to kick-start the vital tourism industry, which is a key source of foreign currency and jobs.

Social distancing measures mean that Istanbul restaurants can seat far fewer customers than before the coronavirus outbreak.

Tamer Kiran, chairman of the Turkish Chamber of Shipping, told Nikkei that yachting tourism failed to draw any foreign customers in May and that this month is likely to be the same. He said he hopes the number of visitors from abroad will begin rising in July.

Turkey first reported its coronavirus case on March 11. Ten days later the government shut down more than 200,000 workplaces, including restaurants, cafes, spas and gyms. As of Sunday, Turkey had reported more than 160,000 cases, the largest tally in the Middle East.

Since the start of the outbreak, Turkey has embraced targeted policies and soft lockdowns. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly said the government has an obligation both to “prevent outbreaks and keep the economy alive.”

The government’s priority has been to keep the workforce active and the economy ticking over. It ordered weekend lockdowns in 15 cities, including Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. Authorities also issued a stay-at-home order for people older than 65 and younger than 18. That order remains in effect.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca spoke to local media on Sunday, stressing that at the peak of the outbreak occupancy in the country’s intensive care units did not exceed 62%, indicating that the health care system has not been overtaxed. He said more than 6,000 contact tracing teams have been dispatched, helping to stem the spread of the virus.

Around 4,500 people have died from COVID-19 in Turkey so far, according to official figures. The country’s young population — the median age is 32 — has helped limit the loss of life.

But some fear a second wave of infections when the economy reopens. Health Minister Koca said that there may be “small effects,” but that he does not expect “a big wave.” On the other hand, Sinan Adiyaman, chairman of the Turkish Medical Association, has called the June 1 reopening “too early.”

Turks have rallied around Erdogan somewhat during the outbreak. Polling company Metropoll put his job approval rate at 52% in April, versus 41.1% in February. Nevertheless, the timing of the pandemic has been bad for the economy, which had just started to recover from the currency crisis that struck in the summer of 2018.

Pinar Uguroglu, head of research at TEB Asset Management in Istanbul, predicts Turkey’s gross domestic product will fall by double digits in the April to June quarter, compared with the same period last year. The International Monetary Fund forecasts the economy will shrink 5% in 2020, but Turkish officials insist it will grow. The bleak economic outlook makes the reopening of Turkey’s economy even more imperative for policymakers.

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