COVID Life in Portugal

Last night I got to do what so many of my American friends cannot, and it’s unclear when they will be able to again: I sat in a large theater and listened to an orchestra. The theatre reminded me of a sparse lecture hall because people were so spread out. Everyone wore masks, including those in the orchestra not playing brass or wind instruments, and audience members were seated about 3-4 seats apart from their nearest neighbor. Orchestra members even bumped elbows at the end of particularly intense songs.

The whole evening felt pretty normal, which, given the socially-distancing-still-in-a-pandemic-will-there-be-a-second-wave state the world is in, was glorious.

New formal concert attire during COVID.

It’s weird to be American and living in a country that more or less has the virus under control. In my home country, there is a staunch political divide over whether to wear a mask or not. People have shot store employees when told to wear a mask. I’ve seen photos of anti-maskers holding up “My Body, My Choice” signs as if wearing a cloth mask is the same as the choice to push a baby out of your vagina or not (in case you’re wondering: it’s not). It is actual insanity and I am now embarrassed when people ask where I’m from, less they associate me with a country full adults throwing temper tantrums over a piece of cotton fabric that’s the size of your hand.

The COVID Response in Portugal

Portugal went into lockdown on March 15. We stayed in that state for about 3 months. Businesses went fully remote, bars, theaters, and malls shutdown, and restaurants could only operate with take-away. We were luckier than other European countries like Spain, Italy, and France because we were still allowed to go outside for walks or runs, but you could only be in groups of two or three. One afternoon from my balcony, I watched as a family of nearly ten was told to disperse and go home.

As restrictions and quarantines fell into place in March, everyone in Portugal went along with it. Sure, there were some people who complained about having to wear a mask, but they did it. Since my Portuguese is still at the level of my boyfriend’s newborn niece, I don’t follow Portuguese news very closely, but I never heard about a shopper spitting in a store clerk’s face because a) the shopper was asked to wear a mask or b) the unmasked shopper was so enraged that the store clerk was wearing a mask. People weren’t storming political buildings with guns or having giant protests because they were asked to wear a simple piece of cloth across their delicate faces just in case they get sick or infect others. We just did what we were asked.

A woman waiting for a concert in Matosinhos, Portugal. Photo by Maksym Kaharlytskyi via Unsplah.

I didn’t write much about what the actual quarantine in Portugal was like mostly because it felt like a non-event. I was fortunate to still have my job, I did Zoom parties with friends, and I caught up on a lot of reading and Netflix.

Now, eight months into this pandemic (I’m counting the time in Portugal starting with the lockdown), and five months after the lockdown was lifted, Portugal has found a sense of normalcy that I wish my native US had: We wear masks on public transportation and inside public buildings. We sanitize before entering stores. Hair salons and most restaurants have plastic shields separating tables and customers. When we eat at crowded places, we try to sit outside. Menus have largely been replaced with QR codes. We have parties! My boyfriend and I have even traveled to the Algarve and southern Spain. We’ll leave for a trip to Luxembourg in a few days.

Does this sound horrible? Does this sound like some weird 1984-style nightmare that many of my fellow Americans thought would take place if they god-forbid did not get a haircut for a few months?

No. It doesn’t.

COVID-inspired artwork in Aveiro, Portugal.

There are a few inconveniences now. There are often long lines to get into shops. You have to sanitize so much that you wonder if there is such a thing as permanent damage from too much cleanser. You might get turned away at a restaurant because seating is now limited. You need to have your mask with you at all times in case you go inside a store or public transport. A handful of times I have beeped my card at a metro stop only to realize I left my mask at home, so I run back to the apartment, get it, and wait for the next metro.

But really, is this actually an inconvenience compared to possibly being put on a ventilator or causing someone else to be put on one? No, it’s not.

It’s a small cloth mask. And if you wear it, you might get to go out to the theater, too. You might even get to go to a football game, which, where I’m from in the US, is more important than life itself. So where the mask, socially-distance, and maybe you can also return to a sense of normalcy like Portugal!

Current COVID Restrictions in Portugal

  • You must wear a mask when on public transport and in public areas.
  • Grocery stores cannot sell alcohol after 8 p.m.
  • Bars must also close/stop serving at 8 p.m.
  • Anyone staying at a restaurant, bar, cafe post 8 p.m. must have food in front of them (or else the establishment gets a hefty fine).
  • Anyone standing at a restaurant, bar, or cafe must wear a mask. You can only be unmasked while sitting.
  • Social gatherings of more than 10 people are prohibited.

One response to “COVID Life in Portugal”

  1. Philip And Helan Avatar
    Philip And Helan

    I have always loved Portugal and I’ve been wanting to go there forever. Thank you for a better perspective of how the pandemic has affected there. I feel like I understood the place a bit more.


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