2+2 rule not valid on buses and trains

People are reminded to stick to the 2+2 rule every day, while it has become increasingly complicated as society has opened up. Public transport remains one of the most problematic areas.

PHOTO: Eero Vabamägi

How can one obligate people to do something only to create a situation where compliance with that obligation is impossible, Mehis Tamm wonders? He takes Elron’s replacement bus to work. The 2+2 proximity rule is one of the few emergency situation measures to remain in effect, even though people cannot be realistically expected to comply.

People are reminded to stick to the 2+2 rule every day, while it has become increasingly complicated as society has opened up. Public transport remains one of the most problematic areas.

Mehis Tamm also took the train during the emergency situation when there were far fewer passengers and departures and people had no choice but to take the trains that were left.

Now, the Rapla train has been replaced with a bus due to repair work on the railroad. “We used to have bags between seats on buses, but not anymore. Because a lot of people get on and off at every stop, it is very difficult to maintain a distance of two meters,” he explained. Tamm said that the bus was so full on Sunday that many passengers were forced to stand. “When a woman coughed, you could feel everyone fidget,” he said.

National passenger carrier Elron explained that passenger figures dropped by 90 percent at the height of the crisis and observing the 2+2 rule was not a problem. Passenger figures have been growing again since May, while Elron says they remain 40 percent below last year’s capacity.

Not enough buses or trains

“People must observe the 2+2 rule when there is enough room on the train or bus to do so, while the police has been put in charge of monitoring compliance,” Ronnie Kongo, head of communications for Elron, said when asked what about a situation where there is not enough room on the train to observe the rule. “Public transport has not been ordered to run empty. It would also not be possible – there wouldn’t be enough buses or trains to facilitate current demand.

Elron switched to a busier timetable on May 11 and is set to add new departures on the southwestern routes from June 8 and return to the regular timetable on the Aegviidu heading.

“While renovation work is standing in the way of it elsewhere, we plan to return to the regular timetable everywhere once that’s done,” Kongo said.

“Unconditional compliance with the 2+2 rule would require public transport services to be severely limited (Elron lacks additional trains, commercial carriers would have to cease operations etc.) and a ban on people entering vehicles in stops, also in sparsely populated areas where people often have no other means of transport,” Minister of Economic Affairs and Infrastructure Taavi Aas (Center) explained.

Therefore, it is impossible to observe the 2+2 rule on public transport. “Such an approach would not be sensible.”

“If there is enough room, people should keep the required distance from others. If it is impossible, Health Board guidelines urge passengers to be cautious and wear masks,” the minister added.

The board’s reply to Postimees reveals that the 2+2 rule does not apply on public transport vehicles.

“We recommend avoiding crowded public transport vehicles if possible and keeping distance from other passengers when taking them,” the board’s head of communications Simmo Saar said. He added that giving people space helps contain the spread of infectious diseases. The coronavirus spreads in close contact or when people are closer together than two meters for 15 minutes.

“These rules are meant to protect people’s health based on universal compliance, urge them to be cautious and keep their distance from others when going shopping or using public transport,” Aas explained in terms of why a rule than cannot be followed needs to remain in effect. “Rules help people go about their business, while they teach us to coexist with the virus. I believe people are very serious about safeguarding their own health and that of others.”

Compliance monitored

At the same time, it is a rule compliance with which was monitored by the police during the emergency situation and is now monitored by the Health Board.

Leading maintenance of law and order officer for the Police and Boarder Guard Board (PPA) Tago Trei said that Estonia still has a health emergency and the virus has not disappeared. “When police officers notice restrictions on movement violations, they talk to people and explain the risks accompanying public gatherings. We forward information of continued violations to the Health Board that can order fines if necessary,” he added.

According to Simmo Saar, the board has been notified of violations by the police.

“Because people usually understand the need to keep their distance after talking to the police, we have not ordered financial punishments,” he said.

Head of the government’s communication bureau Urmas Seaver said that the rule is there to stop the coronavirus from spreading. “That said, it needs to be applied in accordance with common sense, for example, in situations where it cannot be sensibly observed due to the nature of work or other activities.”

He added that the COVID-19 government committee convenes weekly, while the government has not yet decided when the 2+2 rule could be dropped.

Epidemiologist and member of the government’s scientific council Irja Lutsar said they will soon recommend the 2+2 rule to be abolished.

“Because Tuesday saw a lot of other measures lifted, we did not want to include the 2+2 rule then, but it will happen soon,” Lutsar said. She added that while there will no longer be a rule, the council’s recommendation is for people to still keep their distance from others where possible.

Should a second wave of the virus come in fall, Lutsar suggests people avoid public transport. “Of course, no one can cycle or walk from Põlva to Tartu, for example. The obligation to wear masks when taking public transport would be seriously considered then,” Lutsar explained.