Iceland relaxes some COVID-19 restrictions as downward infection trend holds

People exercise at a fitness club in Seltjarnarnes, Iceland on February 12, 2021 amid the ongoing novel coronavirus Covid-19 pandemic. Boasting Europe’s lowest Covid incidence rate, Iceland has gradually eased its restrictions to allow swimming pools, gyms and now bars to reopen for business, focusing its efforts on testing travellers at the border. (Photo by Halldor Kolbeins /AFP/via Getty Images)
With domestic COVID-19 infections continuing on the downturn, Iceland started relaxing some public health restrictions on Wednesday.

“We are in a gradual phase of easing restrictions and slowly but surely returning to normalcy,” said Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdottir in a news release.

“This good progress is the result of widespread public participation in our common quest to minimize the harmful effects of the pandemic on our society. The ongoing effort to protect the most vulnerable parts of our society will result in a changed evaluation of the risk posed to us by the pandemic. Until those effects materialize, we will maintain proper vigilance both domestically and at the border.”

New regulations
A view of the 50m outdoor pool at the biggest swimming pool of Iceland, Laugardalslaug. Spectators will now be allowed at sporting events as long as they are facing the same direction, wear face masks and stay seated. (Jeremie Richard/AFP via Getty Image

Among the measures relaxed on February 24:

  • spectators are now allowed at sporting events
  • gatherings of up to 50 people are permitted
  • several restrictions on in person learning relaxed in higher education

As of Wednesday, Iceland was reporting a 14-day incidence of 1.4 per 100,000 inhabitants for domestic infections and of 4.6 per 100,000 inhabitants for infections detected through border screening.

The government said the relaxation of certain measures was made after determining most domestic infections identified in the past few weeks have been due to old and inactive infections.

“We were among the first to start focused quarantine for passengers arriving from high-risk areas,” said Iceland’s Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdottir.

Since then, our strategy of early detection, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine has been the cornerstone of our approach. The success of these efforts has made it unnecessary for us to impose complete lockdowns during the pandemic. We are still far from having a normal situation, but we are moving fast in the right direction.”

Higher education in-person restrictions loosened
View of the University of Akureyri in northern Iceland in 2017. (Eilis Quinn/Eye on the Arctic)

In-person classes for people 16 years old and younger have previously been permitted, but not for higher education.

Starting February 24, 150 people will be allowed to gathered in higher education settings including in universities.

“Today marks a very joyous turning point for our schools,” Lilja Alfredsdottir, Iceland’s minister of education and culture, said in a news release. 

“Teachers and students have shown great patience and perseverance during this past year. We hope that all of our hard work is now starting to pay off.”

Sequencing continues
An image from the deCODE genetics laboratorium in Reykjavik, Iceland on January 12, 2021.  Scientists here work to sequence every single positive sample from those taking Covid-19 tests to determine both its strain and origin.  (Halldor Kolbeins/AFP via Getty Images)

Iceland has been repeatedly praised by health experts for its aggressive COVID-19 sequencing policy.

The sequencing is done by Icelandic biotech firm, deCode Genetics, which goes over every positive SARS-CoV-2 sample in the country. 

In a news release on Tuesday, the government said this process has established that since September 15, emerging variants, including B.1.1.7, commonly referred to as the U.K. variant, have been contained at the border through arrival screening.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Arctic Tourism & the Pandemic podcast, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Traffic, mobile data show Lapland travellers not deterred by worsening COVID situation in Finland, Yle News

Denmark/Greenland: Greenland authorities buoyed by high demand for COVID-19 vaccine, Eye on the Arctic

Iceland: Iceland institutes new COVID-19 border measures, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Norway extends border closure with Finland due to pandemic, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Norway closes borders over fears of virus, but exempts Russian fishermen from severely infected border region, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Swedes caught in Norway border limbo, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska politicians send Trudeau letter saying they’re “shocked” over Canada’s COVID-19 cruise ship ban, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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