Muscovites flee coronavirus shutdown, bringing trouble to Russia's regions

MOSCOW (Reuters) - On Wednesday, March 25, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that, because of the spread of the new coronavirus, the following week would be a non-working week in Moscow, and the city’s residents should stay indoors.

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On Friday evening, about 730,000 cars, carrying perhaps 10% of Moscow’s 12.7 million population, left the capital, centre of Russia’s epidemic, for the countryside, according to Moscow’s transport department.

The exodus, perfectly legal, has raised fears that the virus is being carelessly spread across the country, and angered the residents of outlying regions who had thought themselves at least relatively protected.

That same day, as the number of confirmed cases rose past 1,000, Russia shut its vast network of state-run hotels, resorts and recreational facilities until June 1, and suspended all international flights.

But this also did not stop over 17,000 people flying from Moscow and the second city, St Petersburg, to their summer houses or dachas in just one of Russia’s more than 80 regions in the space of a couple of days in late March, according to a source in the local administration, 500 km (300 miles) from Moscow.

In the regions, some locals are accusing the Muscovites of bringing the coronavirus with them.

“We need to fight panic,” said the same local government source. “We have to do something with the Muscovites who have come to their dachas. Our economy is built around them, but they are becoming enemies. It shouldn’t be like this.”

In one case, in the Tula region, about 100 km from Moscow, authorities were considering locking down a village with 334 upscale holiday homes because a family of four had gone there after testing positive on their return from a foreign holiday, the region’s crisis response centre said.

The family had immediately self-isolated in the village, but all the inhabitants were now being tested and the streets disinfected.

“We have a lot of dachniki (second-home owners) here who openly neglect isolation - meeting friends, walking in parks,” said Alexander Atayants, head of the area where the village is located.

“Social tensions are rising: locals complain about their reckless behaviour and of the risk of spreading infection.”

Some regions, including Kemerovo and Novosibirsk in Siberia, have ordered anyone coming from Moscow or St Petersburg to be isolated for two weeks.

And the Ivanovo region, 300 km northeast of Moscow, has told locals not to rent out properties to Muscovites on pain of a fine or criminal charges.

As of April 9, Russia said it had over 10,000 novel coronavirus cases, two-thirds of them in Moscow, and all regions are in partial lockdown, their citizens advised to stay at home.

Additional reporting by Gleb Stolyarov; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Kevin Liffey