LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Portugal’s government ordered the country into a coronavirus lockdown Wednesday, but with exceptions so a presidential election can go ahead on Jan. 24.
Portugal has witnessed a record-breaking surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases since it eased restrictions for the Christmas holiday.
Prime Minister António Costa said the pandemic is “at its most dangerous point.” The lockdown starting Friday will last at least a month, he said.
A sense of hope prompted by the recent COVID-19 vaccine rollout “encouraged people to drop their guard and makes the pandemic even more dangerous,” Costa said during a news conference.
Under the terms of the lockdown, staying at home will be mandatory, including for work, and fines for not complying with rules such as wearing masks in the street will double, the prime minister said.
Schools are to remain open, along with companies providing essential services. Financial help will be provided for businesses that have to close, such as restaurants, cinemas and hair salons.
Portuguese health authorities on Wednesday reported 10,556 new confirmed cases and 156 virus-related deaths in 24 hours, both national records. Previous records were shattered in recent days. Health experts predict the number of new daily cases will reach a peak in a week’s time.
Portugal, which began a vaccination program in the last week of December, has officially recorded more than 8,200 deaths from the coronavirus.
Its 14-day rate of cases per 100,000 inhabitants is 517, according to the European Centre for Disease Control. That places Portugal in 12th highest place in the table of 31 countries monitored by the European Union agency.
A week ago, the 14-day rate was 466.
The upcoming presidential election is scheduled to go ahead as political leaders deemed a constitutional amendment that would allow a postponement too difficult to write and pass in a short space of time.
National travel restrictions enacted under the current state of emergency are to be lifted for a day on Jan. 17, when early voting will be permitted, and on the day of the election.
In other exceptional measures, more polling stations than usual will be available to prevent crowds. For the same reason, candidates are favoring online rallies instead of more traditional events.
Health officials will be available to collect the votes of people in elderly care homes and those in isolation.
A longstanding tradition will be scrapped, too: pens dangling from string in polling booths for people to mark their paper ballots will not be provided. Voters must bring their own pens.
Incumbent candidate Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, who is widely expected to win a second five-year term as Portugal’s head of state, has returned to work after two negative tests followed a positive test on Monday.