Greece’s supreme court on Tuesday ordered prosecutors across the nation to arrest and potentially jail people who flout the country's mandatory mask rule, hoping to stamp out a rising tide of objectors, including priests, resisting the use of face covers.
The surprise decree marks the toughest measure yet to be imposed as Greece grapples with a roaring comeback of the deadly virus after infections in the past month alone quadruple, surging to over 16,000 amid harrowing forecasts compiled by the World Bank that the death toll could soar to over 6,500 by the end of the year.
It comes after 10 monks in Greece’s most secluded monastic community tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting authorities to consider imposing a lockdown on the 2,000-year-old northern peninsula, a sacred spiritual retreat.
Health officials contacted by The Telegraph said at least one of the infected monks, aged 85, had been transferred to a local hospital for urgent medical attention. The rest, including a hermit in a cave nestled on the southern tip of the craggy peninsula, were ordered to remain in isolation.
None of the infected monks wore face masks, according to local reports.
Two of Mount Athos’ 20 monasteries, including St. Paul’s, have also been placed in quarantine while abbots on Tuesday held crisis talks with senior health officials who have rushed to the region to consider imposing a sweeping lockdown on the tiny 400 square miles religious state.
“The fear is that the number of cases is far greater than those already detected,” Dimitris Tsiodras, an infectious disease expert and head of the government’s Covid-19 medical response team told reporters. “The prospect of shutting down Mount Athos is open.”
A major centre of Orthodox Christianity, visited by Prince Charles and his father, The Duke of Edinburgh, a Greek-born prince, Mount Athos is a semi-autonomous republic that operates similarly to Vatican City.
Its ports and borders are carefully secured, barring all women, even female animals with the exception of cats, from entering. Its 2,500 male residents insist the Virgin Mary is the only female presence permitted.
How the eight monks were infected remains unclear. But the outbreak, pundits and experts suggest, underscores growing resistance to the use of masks, which have become mandatory since the country started recording a surge in Covid-19 infections earlier this month.
Religious leaders, including priests and prelates, have been on the forefront of Greece’s so-called “deniers” movement, urging the country’s 10-million-strong flock to put their faith and trust in God instead of health precautions urged by doctors.
The resistance movement has swelled in recent weeks, including thousands of parents who now refuse to heed government orders to send their children to school with proper face coverings.