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How Iceland Became Safe from the Covid-19 Coronavirus

How Iceland Became Safe from the Covid-19 Coronavirus

Verified Expert

Did Covid-19 reach Iceland and is it safe to travel to Iceland now? Has everything opened and is life back to normal? How did the government of Iceland respond and do you have to quarantine? Read on to find out everything you want to know about traveling to Iceland now.

How did it get to Iceland?

The COVID19 CoronavirusThe COVID19 virus under a microscope

The first case of COVID-19 in Iceland arose on February 28, 2020. The patient was an Icelandic man in his forties who had recently returned from a ski trip in the Andalo region of Northern Italy. He had returned home to Iceland a week earlier. He developed symptoms and before being quarantined at Landspitali hospital in Reykjavik. It was at this time the government officially declared an ‘Alert Phase.’ The virus had arrived in Iceland.

Iceland’s First Response

Iceland's Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir at a press conference on COVID19The Prime Minister of Iceland, Katrín Jakobsdóttir at a press conference. Image Credit: government.is

But before COVID-19 had even made its way to Iceland, the government had issued an ‘Uncertainty Phase’ on January 31. This meant that they acknowledged that the virus would possibly make its way here. On that day they began targeted testing for those returning from places deemed to be ‘High Risk.’

During the initial testing, few other countries were testing as many people as Iceland. Over the course of six weeks, 50,000 people were tested; over 13% of the total population. Every plane arriving from high-risk areas screened passengers, and they were immediately placed into quarantine until they were cleared.

Quarantines, Lockdowns, and Restrictions

Travellers at Keflavik AirportTravellers at Keflavik International Airport. Image Credit: government.is

On March 1, two more cases of COVID-19 were confirmed. Both patients were in their fifties and had returned home to Iceland via Italy. Later, a further six more cases were diagnosed, and the list of ‘high-risk areas’ had increased to include parts of Austria and Germany. The Icelandic government issued an official statement that detailed severe penalties for those who violated quarantine protocols which included three months' imprisonment. 

Within a week, approximately 400 people were in home-quarantine, 330 had been tested, and 35 people had been confirmed to have contracted the virus. There were still no transmissions of COVID-19 within Iceland. All those who tested positive had contracted it abroad. The next day the first four transmissions of the virus were recorded within Iceland.

By the end of the first week of March, the total number of infections was 65, and no patient had presented with symptoms severe enough to need hospitalization. The first patient to be hospitalized happened three days later on March 11, when the total number of infections had risen to 90.

An overhead shot of downtown Reykjavik during social distancing.An overhead shot of downtown Reykjavik during social distancing. Image Credit: government.is

The government then called a press conference where it was announced that schools and universities would close along with the beginning of a ban on gatherings of over 100 people.

By the time the public gathering ban went into effect, the Icelandic response to the pandemic had begun to focus on early detection, contact tracing, and social distancing.

By mid-March, the entire world had been declared a ‘high-risk area' and residents of Iceland were discouraged from traveling abroad unless absolutely necessary. The Icelandic government also encouraged Icelanders outside of the country to return home as soon as possible.

At midnight on March 24, a stricter ban on public assembly of more than 20 people went into place. Any business that wasn’t able to keep a tight 2-meter distance between all people at all times was forced to close. 

Many businesses that could operate without face-to-face contact allowed employees to work from home, and almost overnight the way locals went about their daily lives changed. Just like in the rest of the world, flights were canceled, and the nation’s borders were under very strict quarantine. 

The official COVID19 Icelandic website, available in 9 languages.A screenshot of the official website covid.is which details important information in 9 languages.

No police officers were patrolling the streets to check if citizens were out in public because they needed to be. 

Iceland’s small population and community-minded spirit made social distancing incredibly manageable compared to larger nations. People simply adapted almost overnight to their new way of life.

COVID-19 took a while to get to Iceland, and those who live here may have taken the time to see the issues other countries faced in lockdown and learned from them. There was no panic buying here and less of a feeling of fear in the air.

There was a calm among the people in Iceland compared to news reports from around the globe. People arrived at the grocery store, stayed 2 meters away from everyone else as best they could, and patiently waited for a security guard to let them know when it was their turn to enter the store.

You also wouldn’t dare break the social distancing rules because your neighbors or friends wouldn’t hesitate to scold you publicly for it. 

There were few complaints from people, Icelanders simply accepted that this was precisely what needed to be done to flatten the curve.

How Iceland Flattened the Curve

The curve of COVID19 infections in Iceland.The curve of COVID19 infections in Iceland. Image Credit:covid.is

 

Iceland was one of the first countries in the world to begin flattening the curve. Flattening the curve is a term we have all heard countless times throughout the pandemic. It’s in almost every article about COVID-19, but what does it actually mean?

Contrary to what you might think, flattening the curve isn’t going to rid Iceland or the world of the virus. The purpose of flattening the curve is to keep the infections lower so that health services are not overwhelmed, and in turn, fewer people die. 

Flattening the curve means that the pandemic will last longer, but the mortality rate is much lower because hospitals can treat patients effectively. We saw the terrible effects of high infection rates in countries like Spain and Italy, where there were too many patients to treat.

the Icelandic COVID19 curve according to worldometer.The curve of the number of infected people in Iceland as of May 9, 2020.

At the beginning of April, the Icelandic government had released an app on Apple and Android that traced the movements of its user. This app was one of the first in the world, and it enabled professionals to track possible infections of COVID-19 more effectively.

By mid-April, Decode Genetics had worked tirelessly with the Icelandic government to provide free voluntary testing. Decode also collated their data into a study that helped show that the majority of infections are spread by what is known as ‘silent carriers’, or those who show no symptoms.

The results of the testing done here in Iceland have helped the world to better understand the virus and how to slow down the rates of infection to flatten the curve.

According to world health experts, we are still a while away from a vaccine, which is the best way to rid the world of COVID-19, eventually. We are lucky that we live in such an incredibly technologically advanced time because when the vaccine is ultimately produced, it will be the quickest formation of one in human history.

How Tourism Companies Survived

Mount Kirkjufell on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in Iceland's West.

Although many countries closed their borders completely, Iceland never officially did this. Even at the peak of infection, if a traveler came from a country that was outside of the ‘High Risk’ areas and was able to self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival, they were allowed to enter Iceland. 

At the end of March, the Icelandic government acknowledged that the tourism industry would suffer in response to travel bans across the globe. Parliament announced a 1.6bn USD response package to ensure the survival of one of the most valuable sectors in the country.

A large part of this package ensured the wages of those who work in the tourism industry. The government allowed businesses to reduce staff hours to 25%, effectively cutting operational costs of tourism-based companies. The remaining 75% of wages were to be paid by the government. 

The aim was to protect wages and make it easier for businesses to cope with the temporary loss of income.

An image from the press conference where the Icelandic Government announced  measure to help companies survive.The Icelandic Government announcing measures to assist companies during COVID19. Photo Credit: Icelandic Police Service.

As a result of this, there weren’t many tourism companies that went under; however, unfortunately, there were those who lost their jobs. Iceland does have a robust social welfare system, so unemployment benefits are available to all permanent residents. In comparison to much larger nations, the quality of life for those affected here is much better during this period.

The Icelandic government also put measures in place to ensure travelers dealing with Icelandic tourism companies wouldn’t lose money. The tourism board insurance covers the small number of bankruptcies that happened.

Icelandair has been offering refunds to travelers who are unable to come to Iceland because of COVID-19. Still, a large majority of people who were planning to visit Iceland have simply opted to change their travel plans to a later date.

How will Iceland Reopen its Borders?

Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir announcing the lifting of restrictions in a press conference.Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir announcing the lifting of restrictions at a press conference. Image Credit: government.is

By the end of April, Iceland had reached its peak of infections and begun to flatten the curve. From Monday, May 5 onwards, the country started releasing restrictions slowly and in phases. The phases happened over four to six weeks, with the infection rates closely monitored. The Icelandic government continues to adjust its response as time goes by to ensure that the country remains in control of infections. 

Iceland reopened its borders on June 15, 2020. From this point, the Icelandic government began to provide testing to ensure Iceland remains a safe place for travelers to visit. 

Now, those entering the country will be given a choice. They can enter a two-week quarantine or provide evidence that they are free of coronavirus infection.

Iceland has been a travel destination for those looking to experience nature in a clean environment where they can be alone or with loved ones. One benefit of this situation is that the decreased demand for international travel will mean prices will go down here. 

It would appear that when people can travel again, Iceland will still be a great place to visit, safe from COVID-19.

Frequently Asked Questions by Tourists about COVID-19 in Iceland

Below are some frequently asked questions about COVID-19 in Iceland and guidelines for those traveling here.

Which countries are allowed to travel to Iceland?

On June 15, 2020, Iceland lifted restrictions for all visitors holding a passport or residency from the UK, and all EU/EFTA countries.

Holders of passports from the following countries are also now allowed to enter Iceland as of July 15, 2020: Australia, Canada, Georgia, Japan, New Zealand, Rwanda, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay.

However, holders of US passports are still restricted from entering Iceland until further notice from the Icelandic government.

Which Airlines are Flying to Iceland?

Icelandair, Iceland’s flag carrier airline, now runs flights from 14 destinations including Amsterdam, Berlin, Boston, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Munich, Oslo, and Zürich. 

Wizz Air, SAS, Atlantic Airways, EasyJet and Transavia are also running flights to Iceland from the Faroe Islands, Copenhagen, Milan, London, Amsterdam and elsewhere. 

For the most current information on airlines and flights traveling to Iceland, you can visit Keflavik International Airport's Airlines and Destinations page here.

Will I have to quarantine when traveling to Iceland?

As of August 19, 2020, all foreign visitors to Iceland have had two choices. The first is to submit two screening tests for COVID-19, the first of which takes place on arrival. Passengers must then go into quarantine for 5-6 days and then submit another screening at health care services across the country.

The second option is not to undergo screening, but agree to spend 14 days in quarantine which begins from your day of arrival. It applies to all travelers regardless of where they have flown from. For more information, please visit the official website.

The cost of the border screening is 9,000 Icelandic Krona (approx EUR 55, USD 65) when paid in advance during pre-registration. Otherwise, it is 11,000 Icelandic Krona which you may pay at the point of entry. 

Those born in or after 2005 are exempt from border screening and quarantine rules, as are those who have been certified by the Icelandic health authorities following a PCR test.

Passengers need to fill out a pre-registration form (available via www.covid.is/english) before departure to Iceland, which requires passengers to provide their details and contact information, flight information, travel dates and address(es) during their stay in Iceland. 

The form also includes a declaration of health and passengers are required to provide information on countries they have visited before arrival. Also, they must disclose whether they have any symptoms of COVID-19, received a COVID-19 diagnosis before their arrival, or if they have been in close contact with an infected individual.

Testing is available at Keflavik Airport and in Seydisfjordur (for passengers arriving on the Smyril Line) for those who opt to be tested on arrival in Iceland. Passengers arriving in other international airports (Reykjavik, Akureyri, Egilsstadir) or ports may be screened at the closest local healthcare center. 
 
Those who test positive will undergo further tests to determine whether they have an active infection. In the case of an active infection, the passenger must self-isolate for 14 days.

If you are traveling from abroad and have cold-like symptoms, you should contact the Healthline +354 544 4113. The helpline is always the first point of contact, and people must call before going to hospitals or clinics.

Is there a lockdown or a ban on public gatherings in Iceland?

There is no lockdown in Iceland; however, there are restrictions on public gatherings. The current limit of people allowed to gather is 20. The gathering must happen in a place where a distance of at least 2 meters can be maintained at all times between people. Children born in 2005 or later are exempt from these restrictions.

Is everything in Iceland open?

As of October 7, 2020, the Icelandic government has tightened restrictions in the Reykjavik metropolitan area to control the spread of COVID-19.

Social distancing requirements for people who are not related or closely connected are 2 meters. Face-mask wearing is obligatory when this distance cannot be maintained.

Public gatherings are now limited to 20 people, including theatres, cinemas and concerts, where audience members must sit in numbered seats. Restaurants are allowed to remain open with proper social distancing until 9 pm.

Bars, clubs, gaming establishments, gyms, swimming pools and bathing establishments are currently closed. Indoor sporting events are prohibited. Outdoor sports are allowed, but spectators must be divided into groups of no more than 20 and wear face masks.

These restrictions for the metropolitan area will remain in effect until October 19, 2020.

Restrictions announced on October 5, 2020, will remain in effect in the non-metropolitan areas of Iceland. Swimming pools may remain open but may not exceed 50% capacity. Social distancing requirements are at 1 meter, with obligatory face-mask wearing when this distance is not able to be maintained.

These restrictions will remain in effect until October 19, 2020. Iceland’s main attraction - nature, remains open even when restrictions are in place.

For the most up-to-date information on Iceland’s COVID-19 restrictions, please visit Iceland’s Official Ministry of Health website here.