On March 19, 2020, the U.S. State Department announced a Global Level 4 Health Advisory, directing Americans to avoid international travel and advising those Americans currently traveling abroad to either return to the U.S. or be prepared to remain outside the U.S. for an indefinite period. As European countries continue to implement travel restrictions and quarantine measures, we often see the same measures reflected days later in the U.S.
Although the circumstances in Schengen Area countries like Italy, Spain, France and Germany have garnered most of the attention in U.S. news outlets, Taft’s community of attorneys, clients and business partners have a presence all over Europe and the world. In light of the U.S. State Department’s Global Level 4 Health Advisory, taking a closer look at life on the ground—including governmental and business responses during the crisis abroad—can help U.S. businesses and individuals understand what their international partners are experiencing, what seems to be working and what could be implemented in the United States.
A Case Study: Sofia, Bulgaria
Situated in the Balkans bordering Turkey, Greece, North Macedonia, Serbia, Romania and the Black Sea, Bulgaria has historically been a crossroads for cultural and political forces. On March 13, 2020, the Bulgarian government announced a national state of emergency to proactively confront the threat of COVID-19. The effects of that state of emergency have already begun to take shape with respect to (1) the status of the COVID-19, (2) daily life and (3) government and law enforcement responses.
As of March 20, 2020, Bulgaria had approximately 115 confirmed COVID-19 cases. The country—containing approximately seven million people and roughly the size of Tennessee—has experienced 10-20 new cases per day. Fortunately, Bulgaria is seeing very few serious or critical cases and the small number of fatalities (three to date) have been limited to elderly patients with problematic medical histories. The Bulgarian health authorities have also continued to make preparations for an increase in cases including ensuring that more ventilators become available.
Following the state of emergency announcement, all business and government offices were ordered closed except for supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential services. Supermarkets began capping the number of individuals allowed in a store and enforcing a one-in-one-out policy, with shoppers outside lining up at self-enforced safe distances. The quick response from supermarkets and the cultural differences between U.S. and Bulgarian shoppers works: as a result, there is no panic buying or empty shelves as seen across U.S. media. As of today, the supply chains appear intact and the stores themselves have continued to remain stocked and have increased preventative cleaning measures.
Public transportation has significantly decreased but is still operational. The Sofia airport remains open with limited flights in and out of the country. U.S. international mail continues to arrive but at a slower pace. The metro system has likewise seen a significant threefold drop in ridership but continues to function throughout the city.
Public schools were closed throughout the country prior to the state of emergency and influx of COVID-19 cases in order to thwart a seasonal influenza outbreak. The closing of schools has since been extended to combat the spread of the COVID-19.
Even with the national state of emergency in place, smaller towns around the country have begun implementing curfews and taking additional measures. The popular ski resort town of Bankso was placed under quarantine on March 17, 2020 after several cases were identified.
The government’s strategy has included increased efforts to deter and criminalize actions that run afoul of the ordered state of emergency. This includes potentially using local police and cell phone data to ensure that individuals who are under quarantine do not break quarantine and engage in unauthorized travel, increasing fines and enforcement against businesses that violate the order by remaining open, and increasing penalties against individuals who provide inaccurate information regarding their recent travel in response to questions from authorities.
In neighboring Romania, stricter measures have been proposed, including a military ordinance that would force those who are required to be in isolation to wear tracking bracelets so that authorities can confirm that they are not breaking quarantine.
The Bulgarian government has also been actively taking steps to quell disinformation and deter illegal profiting from the crisis. For example, this week officials began proceedings against a 21-year-old Bangladeshi medical student in the city of Plovdiv who allegedly claimed on social media that 200 students were infected at the local university. The Prosecutor General has also called for updated legislation for punishing those responsible for the spread of fake news related to COVID-19. Stricter fines and punishments have also been proposed for other COVID-19 related incidents. As part of a new state of emergency bill, the Bulgarian Parliament is considering fines for those who refuse to be tested for COVID-19 and sentences of up to three years in prison and steep fines for individuals convicted of price gouging or profiteering from the sale of food, medicine or other goods seeing demand affected by the COVID-19.
There remain legitimate near- and long-term concerns ranging from containment efforts and the continuing availability of medical supplies to the effects on the education system and economic sectors. Although like in all countries, the state of the spread of COVID-19 is constantly evolving, the proactive and aggressive measures taken by the government thus far in Bulgaria, as well as the level of compliance with those measures, appear to be having positive effects as seen in the continued low rates of transmission and non-disruption of essential services.
What Americans and American Businesses Can Learn from Bulgaria’s Experiences
In light of the State Department’s Global Level 4 Travel Advisory, any Americans still abroad must seriously consider whether returning to the U.S. at this time is the safest alternative. Travel back to the U.S. at this time is uncertain and the possibility of canceled flights, days-long layovers, flights lacking ordinary amenities, increased risks of exposure, healthcare capabilities of foreign countries and extended quarantines when returning home should all be considered. In many instances, it may be safer to remain in a foreign country rather than attempt an immediate return to the U.S.
For those with friends or family in the U.S. State Department or other U.S. government agencies stationed around the world, these decisions are particularly pertinent. Bulgaria is fortunate in that, in addition to exemplary leadership from the U.S. Embassy, the country has the modern medical facilities and infrastructure available to cope with the crisis and immediate return to the U.S. is not required at this time.
For those in the U.S., despite our cultural differences, some of the efforts and precautions taken in countries like Bulgaria can help individuals anticipate further developments and challenges.
- Quarantines and Travel Restrictions: Limiting of movement has been effective in slowing transmission. As cities in the U.S. and most recently the State of California announce mandatory restrictions ordering people to stay at home, individuals should be prepared for such restrictions to be increased and extended.
- Compliance and Enforcement: Issuing stay-at-home orders, however, is just the first step; ensuring compliance will be essential. The U.S.’s robust and constitutionally enshrined culture of personal freedom compared to other countries may make compliance with increased restrictions and shelter-in-place orders more difficult. Governments and businesses will need to continue to incentivize people to stay home and lawfully deter noncompliance as the level of restriction increases.
- Disinformation and Malign Influence: Governments and businesses should also continue to expect an increase in the spread of fake news, phishing attacks, propaganda and malign influence. Sadly, as in any time of crisis, there will be those who will seek to take advantage through illegal means, including state and non-state actors. Responsible and continuous communication with your employees, clients, and constituents will be necessary to safeguard them from harmful false information.
No matter where you or your business operates in the world, Taft's team of dedicated attorneys is committed to helping you understand and navigate the challenges we will all be facing during this new, and ever-evolving crisis.
*Taft Partner Michael Robertson is an American diplomat currently stationed in Sofia, Bulgaria.