Moscow begins lockdown during tougher push to curb virus

Moscow (AFP) –


Moscow, with its more than 12 million people, went into lockdown on Monday while other parts of Russia moved to introduce similar steps to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

The enforcement of the strict new rules, which Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin suddenly announced for the capital late Sunday, coincide with the beginning of a "non-working" week declared by President Vladimir Putin last Wednesday.

Moscow, which has become the epicentre of the contagion in Russia, announced the new measures after many Muscovites failed to heed official recommendations to self-isolate and instead went to parks for barbecues at the weekend.

On Monday, the streets of Europe's most populous city were quiet following the closure of restaurants, cafes and non-essential shops, but traffic could still be seen on the roads.

In central Moscow, residents appeared to have taken the restrictions to heart. Patriarch Ponds, a normally bustling park in the centre of the capital, was deserted in the morning except for a lone woman walking her corgi.

Police cars drove slowly through the streets, looking out for Muscovites breaking the rules. A handful of city workers were sweeping the sidewalks, with the occasional pedestrian rushing past carrying grocery or rubbish bags.

-- Regions prepare for lockdown --

At a government meeting, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin asked regional authorities to prepare for Moscow-style lockdowns, saying it was important to pre-empt a major outbreak.

Over the past 24 hours Russia has recorded 302 new cases -- the biggest daily increase so far -- taking the total tally to 1,835 cases of coronavirus and nine deaths.

"I ask regional heads to work on the introduction of quarantines similar to the one introduced in Moscow," Mishustin said.

Several regions including the Moscow region and the Murmansk region in the northwest have already imposed or were preparing to impose strict quarantines.

The Western exclave region of Kaliningrad will go under lockdown from Tuesday.

Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov was the first regional leader to announce a strict lockdown last week, banning non-residents from entering the once restive region.

Masked men in black uniforms were policing streets in Chechnya armed with white clubs, as shown in video and pictures published by independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

In a rare televised address last Wednesday, Putin announced that Russians would not be required to go to work this week, but would still get paid.

He also postponed an upcoming public vote on constitutional reforms that would allow him to stay in power until 2036.

- 'Pray at home' -

Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's close ally and deputy head of the Security Council, said the pandemic was a threat to civilisation and urged self-discipline to ward off even tougher measures.

The powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which had initially said that regional authorities had no right to close churches, finally fell into line on Sunday, with Patriarch Kirill calling on the faithful to pray at home.

"You can be saved without going to church," he told believers in an address.

"Today our homeland is going through serious hardship."

The new restrictions in Moscow apply to all of the city's residents, regardless of age.

Muscovites are only allowed to leave their homes in cases of a medical emergency, to travel to jobs judged essential, and to shop for food or medicines.

People are also allowed to take out trash and walk their dogs within a 100-metre (330-foot) radius of their homes.