STOCKHOLM — Sweden once found cheerleaders among conservative commentators and activists in the United States for its light-touch approach to the coronavirus pandemic.
But as the numbers of deaths and infections surge, Sweden’s government has been forced to introduce much tougher regulations to prevent the virus from spreading.
Beginning Tuesday, the number of people who can gather in public will be reduced to eight from 50. Only eight diners per table will be allowed in restaurants.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven issued a stern warning on Sunday night as he explained the new rules.
“Tonight, in late November 2020, it is clear that it will be some time before we can return to normal,” he told the nation in a televised address. “Many have neglected the advice during the autumn.”
“All the things you would like to do, but that are not necessary: cancel, postpone,” he added.
Dr. Karin Tegmark Wisell, chief physician at the Public Health Agency of Sweden’s microbiology department, welcomed the new rules, which the government issued unilaterally.
“Large gatherings risk infection,” she said Thursday, adding that limiting them was “a positive thing.”
She said people had become tired of following the initial recommendations, “so we needed to take tougher measures.”
The central government issued a recommendation to regional governments this month to make people avoid public gatherings like concerts, theater performances and lectures.
It also banned the serving of alcohol after 10 p.m. Special local recommendations, including avoiding public transportation and shops, are also in place across much of the country.
Unlike many other European countries, including its Scandinavian neighbors, where strict rules and lockdowns were introduced, Sweden had previously relied on recommendations that people wash their hands, socially distance and work from home.
But the number of cases started to rise significantly late last month, a trend that has continued into November. Almost 6,406 people have died from the virus, and almost 208,295 cases have been recorded, according to John Hopkins University. As a result, the government has been forced to act.
Download the NBC News app for full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak
“It is very frustrating and worrying to hear about the increasing number of sick and dead people,” said Mats Jerresten, 75, adding that the new rules will make little difference to him, as he has been limiting his time in public since March.
However, he said, he will have to wait even longer to see his 12 grandchildren.
For Pady Cortinez, a communications project manager, the new measures command “both fear and respect.”
“You just try to adapt to the situation,” said Cortinez, 48, adding that she had stopped going out to bars and “did not hug.”
As numbers rise, medical facilities, like Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, are also having to prepare.
The CEO, Dr. Björn Zoëga, said Thursday that elective surgery and other procedures had been canceled but that other acute operations for cancer or cardiac patients would continue.
His colleague Dr. Björn Persson, the head of intensive care and thoracic surgery, added that the hospital had raised its capacity in case there was a spike in patients but that it was not full.
Sweden “was not prepared like other societies” for the rapid spread of the disease this year, Zoëga said.
“This came fast,” he said, adding that most of the government’s decisions “have been quite good.”
His opinion was not shared by Dr. Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér, a physician and professor at the Karolinska Institute, who said last week that health authorities “gave up” very early on
“They saw that the virus was entering Sweden. We didn’t have test capacity, so we couldn’t do testing and contact tracing, and they didn’t get that up to speed. So they kind of resigned,” she said.
“There were many things that we said they should do that they didn’t, and it just took off,” she said, adding that she disagreed with the government’s claim that it was listening to the scientists.
Long-term Covid-19 patients remained a concern because they were not being monitored properly, which meant it was difficult to learn the best way to treat and rehabilitate them, she said.
Such patients “were basically put at risk at an unacceptable level during the spring” and were not being treated properly now, she said.
Calling the situation “concerning,” she said, “We don’t know how they are going to recover, because we don’t know enough about this disease at the present time.”
However, all were hopeful that a vaccine would be available soon. But Persson warned that there needed to be a balance “between rushing the vaccine and safety.”