1.2 Physical distancing
Between May and June 2020, a number of measures were eased due to a reduction in national cases. These are outlined below. Since then, due to changes in epidemiological trends, stricter limitations have been reinstated (see 1.2 Physical distancing).
o Physical distancing (e.g. self-isolation, “stay at home” campaigns)
In the Republika Srpska, first intentions for a de-escalation of some mitigation measures were announced for 6 May, after the May holidays which traditionally involve increased social and family gatherings (1 May – Labour Day, 6 May – St. George Family Patron Day) (21 April). On 27 April, RS Crisis HQ adopted a set of conclusions regarding extension of all measures in RS until 11 May, however with a systematically planned schedule of relaxation as of the same day. The first measure to be relaxed was for people over 65 years who can now go outside every day in the period 7-10am. Then, carwash shops, dry-cleaning stores, car workshops, furniture stores, museums and libraries would re-open as of 28 April, with specified working hours. As of 1 May, shopping malls could re-open, but not playrooms, restaurants and movie theatres located inside the shopping malls. Bars, restaurants and hotels would be the last to re-open; however, some restaurants and catering services would be allowed to re-open for delivery and take-out. Protective gear, respect of social distancing rules and a prohibition of gatherings in larger groups remained in place. (https://www.vladars.net/sr-SP-Cyrl/Vlada/Premijer/Media/Vijesti/Pages/Rasporedmjere.aspx?utm_source=Klix.ba&utm_medium=Clanak). Since 11 May, hairdressing and beauty parlours, fitness centres/gyms, coffee bars, BBQ and other restaurants (primarily outdoor serving), driving schools, private dentistries, kindergartens, and public bus transportation have been allowed to gradually re-open and start working (working hours 7am-7pm), under full compliance with Crisis HQ mandated preventive measures (personal protection, physical distancing, disinfection of premises) and service-tailored rules and procedures issued by the public health authorities. For the time being, hotels and hostels, including wellness and spa facilities, cinemas and theatres, children playgrounds and professional sport organisations were not allowed to resume their work in full capacity; hotels were allowed to provide accommodation to guests and food and drink services outside curfew hours. Since 25 May, swimming pools, wellness and spa facilities have been re-opened. Professional sport organisations have not been allowed to resume their work in full capacity until 8 June. Since 25 May, gatherings of more than 50 people in open and closed spaces have been forbidden. Despite a reported increase in the number of new cases since the beginning of June, no new or additional restrictive measures were re-introduced in June. Existing protection measures were extended until 6 July, and the Minister of Health and Social Protection of RS explained in a press conference on 23 June that these measures primarily refer to mandatory wearing of masks indoors, keeping physical distance, mandatory disinfection, respect for recommendations regarding special businesses, limitation of working hours of all businesses to 11pm and the prohibition of indoor gathering for more than 50 persons. The City of Banja Luka, which reported the highest number of COVID-19 infected persons in RS, banned visits to nursing homes, and reduced public transportation remained in force.
In the Federation of BIH, the FBIH Crisis HQ abolished the curfew on 24 April, much to the dissent of FBIH MoH officials, who claimed that this decision was made without a recommendation from public health officials or the Ministry of Health. (http://ba.n1info.com/Vijesti/a428358/Mandic-o-ukidanju-policijskog-sata-Mozda-je-trebalo-naci-neku-drugu-soluciju.html). On 12 May, organised public transportation (bus, railway), compliant with existing mandated preventive measures of personal protection, physical distancing and regular sanitation, was allowed in FBIH. Under the same conditions, outdoor hospitality sector services (hotels, restaurants, bars) were allowed to re-open, as well as private dentistries which were requested to introduce and comply with the strictest infection prevention and control practice. Since 14 May, limited public gatherings are allowed in closed spaces, if these provide 10 sqm per person and gatherings are in full compliance with mandated personal protection measures. Kindergartens were re-opened as of 18 May, under strict and specific provisions – only teachers and care-takers who were tested for COVID-19 were allowed to work, while parents were encouraged not to bring children who have the option to stay at home. With the exception of swimming pools, the ban on the provision of services of museums, cinemas and theatres, concert halls, art galleries, sport and recreation centres was lifted until 30 May. Since 30 May, indoor hospitality sector services and shopping malls re-opened, with a set of rules and procedures as previously announced for similar services (including separate entry/exit points, 2 m distance, 10sq meters per person, work in shifts). Sports competitions could be organized, however without attendance of the public.
After 31 May, gatherings of up to 300 people in open and 100 people in closed spaces wereallowed, if respecting 2 m physical distance rule (household/family members excepted). Cantonal Crisis Management HQs in FBIH were authorized to impose more restrictive measures if the epidemiological situation deteriorates. This was confirmed in the meeting of Crisis Management HQs/Ministers of Health in FBIH (10 June), when two cantons asked for declaring ‘the state of epidemic’ in FBIH, and were advised to declare it at cantonal level, if the epidemiological situation in these cantons required so.
o Physical distancing (e.g. self-isolation, “stay at home” campaigns)
Physical distancing has been a recommendation since mid-February 2020. Self-isolation was a mandatory measure from 4 February for all travellers from China. It was expanded in line with the change of case definition by WHO on 27 February to include travellers from China, Iran, South Korea and Italy. A mandatory physical distancing measure was issued by the Civil Protection Agency on 17 March in the Federation of BIH (link: https://www.zzjzfbih.ba/naredbe-federalnog-staba-stozera-civilne-zastite/), with a minimum distance of 1.5 meters in queues at shops and out in the open. In the Canton Sarajevo (FBIH), all public and private gatherings of more than 20 persons were officially banned.
‘Stay at home’ has been a campaign since 22 March for the whole population and movement restriction was made mandatory for everybody under-18 (FBIH) and over-65 (24 hrs) and during curfew hours.
Initially, in FBIH the curfew hours were from 6pm-5am; in RS they were from 8pm-5am. As of 29 March, the curfew period in FBIH was reduced to 8pm-5am (with the working hours of stores and super-markets extended until 6.30pm), in parallel with a decision that all citizens were obliged to wear masks or any other cloth face coverings, as well as keeping a mandatory 1.5m physical distance in open or public spaces. Since 31 May, wearing face masks has not been mandatory in open spaces where a physical distance of 2 metres can be observed, while remaining mandatory indoors. In FBIH, the curfew was fully abolished on 24 April, while being temporarily reintroduced only for the 1st May holidays (1-3 May).
In RS, since 11 April, wearing face masks and gloves was no longer only recommended but mandatory, along with the instruction that only 3 people in a group are allowed in public. The decision on the mandatory wearing of gloves in open and closed spaces was reversed on 15 May. Since 2 June, wearing face masks has not been mandatory in open spaces, but was recommended in cases where physical distance cannot be maintained (25 June). The curfew was extended for the 1st May (1-3 May) and the 6th May holidays (12pm-5am; 15pm-5am, respectively). Since 7 May, curfew was shortened to 10pm-5am. Since 22 May, the curfew in RS has been discontinued.
o Internal movement restrictions (e.g. quarantine of buildings or residential areas)
All bus and train intercity connections have been cancelled, and city public transport has been cancelled since 20 March. Crisis management authorities in RS were considering banning intercity movements of population outside their place of residence (24 March). In RS, since 3 April citizens were requested not to move away from their place of residence during the weekends (Saturday 12am – Sunday 6pm). In FBIH, the restriction of movement outside the place of residence was introduced on 9 April in the cantons in Herzegovina most hit by the outbreak (Herzegovina-Neretva and West Herzegovina Cantons) and subsequently abolished after two weeks (23 April). Public transportation resumed working under specified protection measures for operators and passengers since 11 May (RS) and 12 May (FBIH). Since 30 May, inter-city transportation (all trains and buses) resumed in FBIH. There have been no quarantined buildings or residential areas.
o Closure of educational institutions
In both RS and FBIH, all educational institutions were closed indefinitely or until further notice. In RS, school closures were instigated on 9 March and on 19 March it was announced that there would be no schools in classrooms until the end of the school year. In FBIH, schools and universities were closed on 11 March and ordered to organise online tuition. Public gatherings and manifestations were to be cancelled. On 19 May, the Crisis HQ recommended that the school year in FBIH would conclude with online classes, taking into consideration that there were only 15 more school days left, a period too short to risk the health of children. University students have been allowed to meet for practical activities in groups of up to 15, while it was left to the universities to decide whether they would conduct finals via online platforms or in person.
o Measures directed at special confined populations or other specific population groups
As of 27 March, persons under 18 and above 65 (FBIH) and above 65 (RS) were prohibited from leaving their homes at all times. The Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees of BIH called upon the crisis management authorities of FBIH and RS to harmonize their approach to all categories of the population, i.e. to respect the Law on Prohibition of Discrimination of BIH and to prevent discrimination by age or any other grounds when adopting measures. In a press statement, the Ministry noted that this especially applies to the treatment of underage persons and persons over 65. The Ministry emphasized that international and European institutions for the protection of human rights are unanimous in their stance that measures undertaken by countries in a state of emergency caused by the coronavirus pandemic must be in line with national constitutions and international standards (30 March). In both RS and FBIH, crisis management authorities decided to allow people older than 65 years to leave their homes in predetermined periods during weekdays in order to keep up with basic life chores, collect pensions and medicines and buy supplies (in RS as of 30 March: 7-10am on Tuesdays and Fridays, since 11 May everyday; in FBIH as of 6 April: 8-12am). On 14 May, restriction of movement for both the under-aged (FBIH only) and the elderly (over-65) were abolished in both FBIH and RS.
There are more than 7,300 migrants in BIH, with 6,500 of them in temporary accommodation/reception centres (TRCs), all located in FBIH (25 March). Full restriction of movement is in place in all reception centres in BIH, with medical supervision organized by DRC and engaged local medical professionals. Approximately 800 or more migrants or people of concern (PoC) were on the outside and/or in transit (23 March). Obligatory 14-day preventive isolation in TRCs was introduced for all new arrivals and pushback cases to BIH, and was discontinued on 29 May. On 16 August, the first migrant was found SARS-CoV-2 positive in TRC Bira, and went missing from the isolation area on the same night. Mandatory preventive isolation in TRCs was reintroduced with an order from the Crisis Board of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Social Policy of Una-Sana Canton (19 August), according to which all PoCs returning from attempts to cross the border (including these who have been pushed back) and who were admitted back into TRCs had to be in self-isolation for 7 days. Symptomatic isolation of PoCs in TRCs was introduced at the beginning of outbreak in BIH and continues. There are 212 beds in all TRCs allocated to isolation areas for PoCs exhibiting symptoms.
As of 14 September, many PoCs had been referred to healthcare facilities, 267 had been tested for COVID-19 and there were 12 COVID-19 cases among them. In Week 37, three of them had been hospitalized, while 6 had been discharged from Bihac Cantonal Hospital and accommodated in TRC Bira (5) and TRC Miral (1) as per doctor’s recommendations. 11 PoCs exhibiting COVID-19-like symptoms had been isolated in TRCs and monitored by medical teams, and DRC reported entry screening of 1,246 PoCs in reception facilities .Humanitarian staff operating inside and outside reception centers are currently advised to continuously self-monitor for symptoms and continue adhering to recommended protective measures, including the use of PPE, particularly in indoor facilities. If humanitarian staff have been in contact with persons confirmed positive for COVID-19, they should inform their health provider and follow the suggested measures. Staff exhibiting COVID-19 like symptoms, including fever, should suspend their presence from the reception centers until fully recovered.
o Restrictions on non-essential businesses
All non-essential businesses have been ordered to close. In RS, stringent measures for public gatherings, regime of working of shops, etc. were issued on 10 March. On 19 March, FBIH ordered all public transportation companies to cease functioning, excluding taxi companies; the closure of all markets and shops in FBIH excluding: groceries shops, shops with hygienic products, fish markets, pharmacies, specialized shops for medical and veterinary products, agricultural pharmacies, gas stations, kiosks, bakeries, dry cleaners, specialized shops for orthopaedics and other supplies, specialized shops with children's equipment, shops with animal food and products, and construction materials shops.
On 22 March, additional stricter measures were introduced to accompany the curfew. Most importantly, all markets and pharmacies had to close their business by 16:30 each day (in FBIH extended to 18:30 as of 29 March), while in the RS limitations have been placed limiting the maximum amount of certain food items that an individual can buy, including flour, oil and salt. Working hours have been adjusted to cover shifts, for example having employees work every other day, work from home and/or early closure. Public gathering places were closed. On 30 March, RS authorities relaxed some of previously introduced measures, allowing for stores to re-open that sell technical goods, construction material and similar items, as well as green markets, with mandatory hygienic and epidemiologic measures in place. The RS Government also adopted a new measure that froze the margins of basic food and hygiene products at the level they were at on 5 March in order to avoid price increases.
Since 11-12 May, gradual re-openings of non-essential businesses have been scheduled in both RS and FBIH, and were pursued by the end of May.
o Restrictions on mass gatherings and public places
Measures were introduced on 17 March, primarily targeting the hospitality sector. Hotels were allowed to house guests but are obliged to respect high standards of infection prevention and control and physical distancing. Since hotels are rapidly losing customers (up to 850,000 overnight stays of tourists in BIH in March, April and May have been cancelled), there were indications of forthcoming massive hotel closures, with consequent staff layoff.
On 4 May, a private birthday party for a prominent Sarajevan doctor (Director of Clinic for General and Abdominal Surgery of the Clinical University Centre Sarajevo) was organised in one of the most popular Sarajevo’s restaurants, with the guests including people from political and professional elites (Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations of BIH, Dean of Veterinary Faculty Sarajevo and member of Canton Sarajevo’s scientific body for analysis and monitoring of COVID-19 outbreak), and local celebrity entertainers. On the spot, live-streamed videos were released over social networks, and the police reacted swiftly and immediately terminated the party, issuing fines to all present and the owner of the restaurant. This caused a major public outrage, and the participants were either suspended from their positions or their political careers were openly put in question by respective political leaders, as in the case of Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations of BIH. Following this ‘corona-party’ in Sarajevo, the media revealed examples of notable members of the community or even mayors organizing similar events (Bijeljina, Bosanski Petrovac) (6 May). A motion for dismissal of Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations of BIH and Deputy Minister of Civil Affairs of BIH was made in the House of Representatives of Parliament of BIH and was voted against, so that both remained in position (11 June). Religious communities in BIH have been calling for responsibility and solidarity. The Council of Mufti of the Islamic Community of BIH decided that in order to protect the health of the people, joint prayers in mosques would not be held, including Friday prayer. Vrhbosna and Banja Luka Dioceses recommended similar measures: churches would remain open and priests would lead religious ceremonies, but without the physical presence of a congregation. Representatives of the Jewish community in BIH stated that their members have been praying at home. The Serb Orthodox Church called on responsible behaviour of faithful ones during the pandemic period.
In RS, the Crisis HQ on 16 April extended the curfew over the Orthodox Easter Holidays (Fri-Sat and Sat-Mon 3pm-5am), while the church Easter ceremonies were not banned. There were reports of groups of people visiting the churches despite the measures in place, also of people being fined for breaking the extended curfew. On the eve of Ramadan (23 April), the Islamic Community in BIH endorsed specific protocols on the ‘organization of religious life and service under extraordinary circumstances’ reminding that family iftars (breaks of fasting) were to be organized in family circles only, and prayers conducted at home – with full respect of curfews in place.
On 6 July, the Republika Srpska Crisis HQ re-introduced some stricter measures, limiting the number of people at all public gatherings to a maximum of 50 and reducing working hours for hospitality and catering services to 6am-11pm, while allowing sports activities and competitions exclusively without an audience and upon prior approval by the respective government authority. On 20 July, these measures were extended for 14 days, and mandatory wearing of face masks in open spaces, where 2-metre physical distancing cannot be observed (such as open markets, bus stations, queues, wedding ceremonies, funerals etc.), was reinforced with recommendations from the Public Health Institute of RS (21 July). On 3 August, the RS Crisis HQ extended all the measures for an additional 14 days. On 17 August, the same measures (with exception of working hours for hospitality and catering services which were extended for an additional hour, 6am-12pm) were again extended until the end of August. The same measures were extended on 31 August and again on 14 September for an additional 14 days each.
Despite the deterioration of the epidemiological situation observed in almost all cantons in the Federation of BIH in June, the FBIH Crisis Management HQs did not decide to introduce additional restrictive measures (with exception of banning visits to nursing homes and limiting working hours of restaurants, bars, nigh clubs and catering services to 12pm), but issued recommendations for reducing public gatherings, non-essential travel for all citizens and non-essential movement of older people as of 29 June. In addition, the inspectorates in FBIH were requested to intensify their presence in the field and together with the police spot-check places of gatherings such as supermarkets, shopping malls and public transportation for observance of the measures which remained in force.
On 2 July, the Minister of Health reported to the Government of FBIH that none of the cantons had introduced a ‘state of epidemic’ despite the deteriorating epidemiological situation, and was requested by the Government to re-consider declaring it for the entire FBIH.
On 6 July, the Crisis HQ of Sarajevo Canton declared a new set of restrictive measures, including shortening working hours for hospitality and catering services in the canton to midnight, and limiting public gatherings to a maximum of 50 people in enclosed spaces and 100 people in open spaces. All business facilities, public institutions, governance and administration units were instructed to develop and endorse their own crisis preparedness plans, as well as, wherever possible, to revert to working from home for the next 14 days or determine shorter working hours. Recommendations were also issued for all citizens to limit their travels, both within and outside BIH to the extent possible, and for people at increased risk (the elderly, patients with chronic diseases and conditions) to avoid venturing out and close-contact settings.
Additional recommendations for workplaces and businesses, related to sharing information with the contacts of workers tested positive to facilitate contact tracing, were issued (15 July) and citizens have been repeatedly urged to wear masks at all times in confined spaces and even out in the open, especially in market places (vendors and visitors), university facilities and in public gatherings (16 July). On 5 August, the Sarajevo Film Festival 2020, scheduled for 14-21 August, was cancelled in its physical form and the event was entirely shifted online (https://www.filmneweurope.com/news/bosnia-herzegovina/item/120397-festivals-sarajevo-film-festival-forced-to-cancel-on-site-event-nine-days-before-opening). The second Pride Parade in BIH, which was planned for 23 August, has also been postponed (7 August).
With a further deterioration of the epidemiological situation in FBIH observed in July, the Ministry of Health of FBIH declared a ‘state of epidemic’ in FBIH (17 July), effectively allowing respective authorities and institutions in FBIH easier access to budgetary funds and implementation of stricter sanitary controls at borders. On 25 July, FBIH Crisis HQ with a decree tightened up some of the measures in force (mandatory wearing of masks in both closed and open spaces where 2-m physical distance cannot be observed; gatherings limited to not more than 50 people in closed spaces and 100 people in open spaces, with the organisers of the gatherings held responsible for implementation of measures; working hours for hospitality and catering services limited to 11pm). Cantonal crisis HQs were entitled to introduce more restrictive measures if the epidemiological situation deteriorates locally, in cantons or cantonal municipalities. At the beginning of August, FBIH Crisis Management HQs repeatedly stressed that returning to more restrictive measures was not an option – so monitoring, inspection and issuing fines for non-observance of current public health and social measures in force should be strengthened. On 8 August, FBIH Crisis HQ extended these measures for an additional 14 days, and subsequently again on 20 August. In Herzegovina cantons of FBIH, local authorities urged for vigilance with increased large gatherings – most notably large weddings, for which they issued an instruction: all have to be announced 48 hours earlier with guests lists to the local Crisis HQ (17 August). On 15 September, Crisis Management HQs in West Herzegovina Canton limited participation in organised festivities to a maximum of 30 people from 22 September, and also limited working hours of all hospitality sector facilities to 12 pm and their capacities to the number of seating places, with full observance of existing measures in place. FBIH Crisis HQ extended the existing measures for an additional 14 days on 4 and 18 September, respectively. These decisions were complemented with specific recommendations for schools on 4 September (https://covid19.fmoh.gov.ba/uploads/files/preporuke%20za%20%C5%A1kole-6aaed9b67228d5f8836a9f265a93ebfc2b709dba.pdf). For universities in the academic 2020-21 year, the education process should be organised on-line to the extent possible (19 September).
A ‘state of epidemic’ was also declared in the Brcko District BIH (27 July), upon recording an epidemiological deterioration and a four-fold increase in the number of new cases in the first half of July. All public gatherings and unofficial gatherings over 20 people were banned (since 20 July), while the working hours for hospitality and catering services were limited to 11pm.
o Re-opening of educational institutions
On 17 August, the Government of RS decided that the 2020/21 school year would start on 1 September for all primary and secondary schools in RS. The classes over 15 pupils/students would be divided into groups to attend in shifts, while the standard 45-min class periods would be reduced to 30 minutes (primary schools) and 20 minutes (secondary schools), with all breaks limited to 5 minutes. Online classes are to be provided only for sick or quarantined/home-isolated children. The schools are required to follow all infection prevention measures as recommended by the Public Health Institute of RS (https://www.phi.rs.ba/pdf/sadrzaj/Preporuke%20za%20pocetak%20skolske%20godine.pdf).
In FBIH, the FBIH Crisis HQ was initially thinking of proposing school re-openings with a 15-day delay (20 August). In the meeting between public health and educational authorities of FBIH and its cantons (Konjic, 21 August), it was agreed that new school year in FBIH would start on schedule (1 September in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica-Doboj canton; 7 September in other cantons of FBIH). Public Health Institute of FBIH issued recommendations for education process (up to 15 pupils in class, classes reduced to 30 minutes) and infection prevention and disinfection measures in schools (https://www.zzjzfbih.ba/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Preporuke-za-%C5%A1kole-za-2020_2021.pdf). Several cantons opted for a combined approach, where only the youngest pupils who do not change teacher or classroom (primary school 1st to 4th graders) would return to schools, while the older pupils would start with online classes. In addition, blended educational approaches, a combination of school and online classes, are being considered, especially for larger schools where it would be difficult to organize daily classes in smaller groups. With the start of the school year, Sarajevo authorities insisted that the protocols in place were functioning, and have thus instructed that some of the classes for which the decision was pending should also resume in blended model (online/offline weeks). In Mostar however, the Parents’ Association ‘Nasa Djeca’ held a peaceful protest on 14 September, warning that the instructions received from the Ministry of Education of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton were not met nor adjusted with HQ recommendations. The petition they started included abolishing mandatory isolation prescribed for all students from a class in which one tests positive, as well as requesting technical equipment for all students in case of re-introduction of online classes.
In BD BIH, two students from two high schools in the Brcko District tested positive during the first week of new school year (14 September). Both school classes were put in 10-day quarantine, and online education was considered for them while in isolation.
o Measures directed at special confined populations or other specific population groups
On 22 April, the Constitutional Court of BIH discussed the limitation on movement of minors and those over 65 years, ruling that the measures in place were unconstitutional and against the European Convention on Human Rights. However, the Constitutional Court did not put that measure out of force, instead giving the responsible crisis authorities five days to harmonize it with the Constitutional Court decision. On 23 April, RS Crisis HQ decided to allow the movement of people over 65 years daily 7- 10am as of 27 April. On 24 April, FBIH Crisis HQ not only relaxed but in some cases completely put out of place some of the measures: curfew no longer in place in FBIH, no mandatory quarantine upon entry and allowed mobility for two restricted categories 3 days per week. FBIH Crisis HQ noted that this ‘phasal adjustment’ of measures would be closely monitored and could still be reversed should the situation deteriorate. On 14 May, restriction of movement for both the under-aged (FBIH only) and the elderly (over-65) were abolished in both FBIH and RS.