Russia Infections, Deaths Soar

MOSCOW (AP) -- Coronavirus infections and deaths in Russia climbed Friday to another pandemic record, putting a growing strain on the country's health care system.

The government coronavirus task force reported 37,141 new infections and 1,064 deaths in the past 24 hours. That brought Russia's death toll to 228,453, Europe's highest by far.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to the worsening situation by ordering Russians to stay off work from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7, when the country is already observing an extended holiday.

Russian authorities expect the order to help limit the spread of the virus by keeping them out of offices and off public transportation, where mask mandates have been widely ignored. The government also urged local authorities to tighten their own restrictions during the period.

In some regions where the situation is even more threatening, Putin said the nonworking period could start as early as Saturday and be extended past Nov. 7.

Asked Friday if the Kremlin could extend the nonworking period nationwide or order a tighter lockdown, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it would depend on the evolving situation.

"If necessary, other decisions will be made," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin followed on Putin's order by introducing new restrictions in the capital, starting even earlier.

Gyms, cinemas and other entertainment venues, as well as most stores will close in Moscow from Oct. 28 to Nov. 7, along with kindergartens and schools. Restaurants and cafes will only be open for takeout or delivery orders during that period. Food stores and pharmacies can stay open.

Access to museums, theaters, concert halls and other venues will be limited to those holding digital codes on their smartphones to prove vaccination or past illness, a practice that will remain in place even after Nov. 7.

Most state organizations and private businesses, except for those operating key infrastructure and a few others, will halt work in the 11-day period, Sobyanin said.

"Nonworking days allow us to break the chain of contagion. We need to take those measures quickly now as we are at the pandemic's peak," he said in televised remarks Friday.

Russia's daily infections have been surging for weeks and mortality numbers topped 1,000 for the first time last weekend amid low vaccination rates, lax public attitudes toward taking precautions and the government's reluctance to tighten restrictions. Only about 45 million Russians --- roughly a third of its nearly 146 million people --- are fully vaccinated.

Russia was the first country in the world to authorize a coronavirus vaccine, launching Sputnik V in August 2020, and has plentiful supplies. But uptake has been slow, blamed in part on conflicting signals from authorities.

While extolling Sputnik V and three other domestic vaccines, state-controlled media often criticized Western-made shots, a message that many saw as feeding doubts about vaccines in general.

President Vladimir Putin has deplored Russians' vaccine hesitancy, saying that "there are just two options for everyone -- to get sick, or receive a vaccine. And there is no way to walk between the raindrops."

Asked if Russia could make vaccines mandatory, Putin said he believes they should remain voluntary.

"I believe we mustn't force it but persuade people and prove to them that vaccination is better than illness," he said during Thursday's panel with international foreign policy experts. "We must try to increase people's trust in the government's actions. We need to be more convincing and prove it by example. I hope we will succeed."

After imposing a nationwide lockdown early in the pandemic, the Kremlin has tried to avoid it since then, for fear of hurting the economy, delegating the power to decide on local restrictions to regional authorities across the country's 11 time zones.

Many of Russia's 85 regions already have restricted attendance at large public events and introduced the digital codes for access to restaurants, theaters and other venues. Some have made vaccinations compulsory for certain public servants and people over 60.

But Moscow had avoided such restrictions until now, and crowds have flocked to its restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs and karaoke bars. Authorities had avoided restrictive measures partly because the capital's health care system has more resources than other regions.