Hungary on Saturday loosened several Covid-19 restrictions for people with government-issued immunity cards, the latest in a series of reopening measures that have followed an ambitious vaccination campaign.
As of Saturday, individuals with the plastic cards may enter indoor dining rooms, hotels, theaters, cinemas, spas, gyms, libraries, museums and other recreational venues. Opening hours for businesses were extended to 11 p.m. and an overnight curfew in place since November will now start later, at midnight.
People who have received at least one vaccine dose and those who have recovered from Covid-19 are eligible for the Hungarian immunity cards, which must be presented at establishments before entry. Businesses can be issued heavy fines if they allow non-cardholders to enter.
Hungary’s famous thermal baths, a hallmark of its tourism industry, opened their pools, saunas and steam rooms to guests Saturday after nearly six months of closure. Budapest, which operates 12 such spas, opened six of them.
Ildiko Szucs, the CEO of Budapest Spas Ltd., told The Associated Press that she thinks the baths will benefit people who have suffered physically and mentally during the pandemic.
“The effect of medicinal water on stress management and mental rejuvenation is very important, and we hope as many people as possible will recognize this and visit us,” Szucs said.
Speaking from Budapest’s neo-Baroque Szecheyni Baths, the largest medicinal spa in Europe, Szucs said many guests arrived Saturday with proof of vaccination issued by their doctors but had not received their government-issued cards and had to be turned away.
“We will try to take action on this matter and, if necessary, ask for an amendment to the legislation…since these guests have already received two vaccinations in many cases,” she said.
While millions of Hungarians got the opportunity to return to some semblance of their normal lives with the issuance of immunity cards, organizational problems have meant that many who are eligible did not receive them within eight days of their first shot as planned.
Maria and Gabor Gal, a retired married couple, received their first dose on March 21, and their second in early April. But six weeks after their initial shots, they haven’t received their cards.
“They told us that the vaccination certificate will come when it comes. Now we’re asking when it will come, because it would be good if we could use it,” Maria Gal, 67, said. “We’re sitting here locked in for a year-and-a-half.”
The Hugarian government launched a website and special email address for people waiting for their cards may submit inquiries. Earlier plans indicated a mobile application would be available to provide proof of vaccination, but the system has yet to go online.
Hungary has administered 4 million first doses of coronavirus vaccines, reaching about 40% of its population. The country has the second-highest vaccination rate in the European Union and is the only one of the EU’s 27 nations to use vaccines from China and Russia in addition to Western jabs.
But a devastating pandemic surge this spring also gave Hungary the world’s highest overall Covid-19 mortality rate per 1 million inhabitants, according to Johns Hopkins University. The country of about 9.7 million people has reported over 27,500 deaths in the pandemic.
The whole issue of immunity cards or so-called Covid-19 passports is fraught, with critics saying they discriminate against people in poorer nations who do not have access to vaccines. Hungary is also trying to counter possible EU moves to issue such documents only to people who have received vaccines approved by the European Medicines agency, which so far do not include the vaccines made in China and Russia.
Zoos also began admitting guests after nearly six months of mandatory closure. Budapest Zoo spokesperson Zoltan Hanga said the last time the zoological park in Hungary’s capital was shut for so long was during World War II.
“This is a big day,” Hanga said. “The zoo is the best when it’s full of visitors, when a lot of people come to get to know the world of animals and have a good time. Finally, the time for this has arrived.”
Children under 18 who are accompanied by adult cardholders may enter establishments without a card. At the zoo, lines of parents and eager children formed at cash desks ahead of the opening on Saturday morning.
“Now that the restrictions are eased, we can go more places with my child and husband,” said Eva Marozsan, who brought her young son Zoltan to visit the animals. “It was very bad to be closed inside, and now that places are opening, it’s really uplifting for us.”
A soccer match in Budapest on Saturday is expected to admit fans holding immunity cards. A competing club issued a statement saying masks would not be required in the stadium but urged fans to wear them anyway.
Border control regulations were changed Friday to allow Hungarian citizens and legal residents to reenter the country without needing to quarantine. Hungary’s foreign affairs minister, Peter Szijjarto, announced that Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Bahrein would recognize the Hungarian immunity cards in a mutual agreement, permitting travel.
Negotiations for similar agreements are underway with Greece and Israel, he said.