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Baltic 'bubble' looks to reopen regional travel

The Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are poised to become one of the first blocs to reopen regional travel, thanks to their swift response to the pandemic and measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

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The European Union outlined plans on Wednesday for a limited reopening in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The proposals focus on conditions-based relaxation, with the ultimate goal of keeping the tourist industry alive this summer.

These are just suggestions, and countries can decide what to do for themselves. But some regional groups are setting the pace. 

Related: EU calls for European borders to reopen to save tourist season

The Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — have been fairly effective in their approach to the pandemic. On Friday, they are planning to open up regional travel. That means people will be able to move freely among the three countries, but anyone who is arriving from outside the region will still have to go through a two-week quarantine period. 

Located in the northeastern corner of the EU, the Baltic countries have a collective population of just over 6 million and a long history of working together on shared interests.  

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Opening up a "Baltic bubble" move is a notable step toward recovery, their prime ministers say. 

On the global scale, the Baltic states have seen comparative success dealing with the pandemic. All were quick to issue emergency measures before anyone within their borders had died of the disease. They have also tested aggressively and allowed experts to lead the way. Latvia and Estonia managed without a hard lockdown, meaning some businesses could still operate if proper precautions were taken. In large part, people have been fairly compliant with restrictive measures, and the governments have received international praise

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Around half of the population of Saaremaa, one of Estonia's islands, was estimated to be infected after a March sporting event with a visiting team from Italy. Overall there have been around 1,700 cases and 60 deaths in the country. In Lithuania, there have been just over 1,505 cases and 54 deaths. And in Latvia, fewer than 1,000 people have contracted COVID-19, while 19 people have died from the disease.

Broadly, the preventative measures taken have successfully slowed new infections to a trickle, which has allowed the countries to move to reopen together. 

The Baltics have approached the crisis with the innovation for which the region has become known. Estonia, which is a pioneer in technology and e-governance, has worked toward finding digital solutions to the crisis. In Vilnius, Lithuania, the city has turned into a giant open-air cafe. Minister of Health Ilze Viņķele, who has been at the forefront of the response in Latvia, even guest DJ-ed an online quarantine disco to lighten the mood. 

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Still, reopening borders doesn't mean the countries will stop taking precautions. 

“Not only the authorities, but our societies are still cautious," said Marius Laurinavicus, a senior analyst at the Vilnius Institute of Policy Analysis in Lithuania. “But bearing in mind the situation in our countries is much better than in the other parts of Europe, we are trying to do our best to get our lives back to normal.”

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