A wave of outrage has swept through Portimão following the government’s decision to force the borough to ‘take a step back’ in its emergence from lockdown.
Portimão Mayor Isilda Gomes has threatened that the local council will stop “paying for and conducting its own Covid-19 tests” while frustrated business owners, who now have no choice but to close or sell from their front door, have described the backtracking as a “kick in the teeth”.
An online petition demanding the “immediate opening of Portimão” has been launched and had been signed by over 450 people at the time we went to press.
The situation was addressed by Isilda Gomes at a press conference on Friday (April 16), which saw her slam the government’s decision as “unfair, incomprehensible and unacceptable”.
The mayor also used the press conference to make a series of demands which, “if the government fails to comply with”, could ultimately lead to the council stopping its mass testing initiative, which has already led to the testing of over 4,000 people – only 12 of whom tested positive.
As the mayor pointed out: “The virus is not being spread at terraces. It has been spread due to outbreaks which are perfectly identified, controlled and monitored.
“I consider this disrespectful to the entrepreneurs and everyone else who is fighting on a daily basis to overcome the many difficulties they are facing,” Isilda Gomes added.
Portimão is one of four municipalities in Portugal where there are 240 or more cases per 100,000 inhabitants. The others are Moura, Odemira and Rio Maior.
To control the numbers, the government has forced these boroughs into returning to the first stage of the government’s plan to ‘reopen’ the country, while most other municipalities have moved onto ‘stage three’.
Since Monday (April 19) and for two weeks, citizens in these four municipalities must once again remain in their boroughs of residence while several businesses that reopened just a few weeks ago have had to close again, or settle for ‘take-away’ services or ‘venda ao postigo’ (selling from the front door).
According to Gomes, the government is dealing with the situation incorrectly. As she explained, most of Portimão’s new cases are linked to outbreaks in the construction sector and at local schools. While the number of cases linked to the construction sector outbreak is “declining steadily”, the same cannot be said at local schools.
“Schools are going to stay open when they are the places where we now have the largest number of positive cases,” Gomes said.
Around 25% of Portimão’s positive cases are linked to the local school community, while half of new cases in the last two weeks were detected among family members of students and teachers.
In Gomes’ view, the government should ‘right its wrongs’ by listening to her list of demands which started with a call for more surveillance in the borough to ensure all guidelines and rules are being respected.
Gomes also urges the government to strengthen its vaccination efforts in the borough and the Algarve.
“I’ve seen, several times, the Prime Minister and Health Minister visit vaccination centres throughout the country. Maybe it is time that they visited Portimão’s vaccination centre and explained to the people of Portimão why we have to take a step back. Then maybe the ARS (regional health authority) would let us open our vaccination centre,” she said.
“Extraordinary” support measures for local businesses and restaurants, making mask usage mandatory on public streets, strengthening the public health force with more health professionals to help monitor the borough’s infected, and taking into account how many tests are carried out in a borough when evaluating its risk level are among the other demands made by the local mayor.
Meanwhile, business owners in Portimão are at their wits’ end with the backtracking demanded by the government.
“It’s a real kick in the teeth,” Gus Murray, owner of the Leinster House Irish Bar in Alvor, told us this week.
“Everyone around here feels the same. The town was finally coming back from lockdown but has now been forced to shut down again. They’ve even cut off access to the beaches. It’s starting to take a real mental toll on people,” Gus said.
As he explained, there are many people whose only social interaction happens when they “go out for a coffee or visit the butcher”.
Another issue business owners are facing is the lack of financial support, as many have been declared ineligible to receive any, as was the case for Gus.
“The biggest problem is that the government is not helping business owners. Furthermore, the rules they are enforcing make no sense. How many cases have been linked to people outside on terraces or in restaurants? None. All the cases (in Portimão) are linked to the construction sector and schools, yet those sectors are being kept open,” he lamented.
Said Gus, “nobody wants to break the law. We just want to stay open and work”.
Emídio Freire, manager of Faina restaurant at Portimão Museum, agrees that the step back that the municipality has been forced to take “seems completely unnecessary.
“This is not a red alert we’re facing. It’s not even an orange alert,” he said, explaining that the number of cases in Portimão does not require such drastic measures.
In fact, he believes the government’s decision shows a “complete lack of respect” for business owners who have “invested to reopen” but who are now facing losses once again.
“These next years are going to be very complicated. We have seven employees here at Faina and we haven’t dismissed anyone, but we’ve been forced to take on debt,” Emídio Freire told us, adding that the government will “have to step up and help”.
By MICHAEL BRUXO