ATHENS, GREECE - Greece is preparing to reopen to international tourism in the coming days, a move expected to bring in as many as 10 million travelers from several countries. The re-start is vital for the weak Greek economy that relies heavily on tourism. However, health officials fear tourism could fan a flare-up in COVID-19 and have grave repercussions for Greece, after a decade of financial recession.
Health concerns have surged after a flight from Doha this week brought in 19 cases of the coronavirus.
The number may seem small but, matched up against the near-zero infections that Greece has been showing for weeks now, infectious disease experts such as Haralambos Gogos are worried.
We are on alert, he says, monitoring the situation and holding one meeting after another to best tackle this matter without having to shut down flights and tourism before they actually kick off.
Health concerns have also arisen from a recent report by Greece's National Public Health Organization showing a startling 36% rise in imported COVID-19 cases in the last 10 days.
That's almost twice as many as the country recorded in total from the start of the pandemic here five months ago.
However alarming, officials in Athens say, Greece's tourism re-launch will proceed as planned on June 15, when the first wave of travelers is due to fly in from 29 countries.
Those countries are currently showing low rates of COVID-19 infection.
Beginning July 1, though, Athens hopes to include several more countries, opening its doors to between 6 million and 10 million foreign travelers.
Emmanouil Dermitzakis, a professor of genetics at the medical school at the University of Geneva , says that means thousands of COVID-19 cases hitting Greece.
A rough estimate, he says, shows that about 10% of those incoming travelers will be carriers, and of them, as many as 700 will show symptoms and require treatment.
For a nation counting less than 3,000 infections and 180 deaths from the pandemic, the predicted figures look daunting.
Dermitzakis says Greece's random testing capabilities have significantly increased in recent months.
The situation, he says, is manageable. But the spread of the virus during the summer will ultimately come down to how Greeks themselves comply with social distancing rules -- or not.
Since lockdown measures eased here in May, thousands of Greeks have taken to public places, defying social distancing rules in ways that have experts like Demitzakis concerned.
It's understandable that after months of lockdown, Greeks are out and about, but this does not justify and warrant the defiance we are currently seeing, he says.
Ultimately, DermitzakIs says, Greek will have to make a stark choice between altering those behaviors to suit the demands of this different summer or suffer unemployment and a financial crisis if the pandemic roils out of control, forcing Greece to shut down again.