March 30, 2020 — Police laid spike strips across the road leading to Murter, a small island off the Croatian coast. It has the dubious honor of being the country’s only fully-quarantined location. A triage ambulance stays on the island, creating a de facto mobile COVID-19 treatment center. Delivery trucks carrying food and medicine can only reach the border, then await a police escort.
How did the virus manage to shut down a relatively remote island of reportedly 2,500 residents?
The answer lies in the weeks before Croatia’s nationwide lockdown.
The Dalmatian coast experienced a surge in foreign visitors in early March, as well as continental residents flocking to weekend homes on the coast — Murter among them. The coronavirus outbreak loomed over the horizon, as confirmed cases rose every day before the government shut down all nonessential business on March 19.
“With the start of the preseason in Murter, there was obviously a mix-up with Western European populations,” according to county head Goran Pauk.
Locals who spoke with Total Croatia News confirmed Pauk’s assertion. They recalled the island cars registered in foreign countries zipping around the island and locales filled with unfamiliar faces. Murter’s patient zero was likely asymptomatic. Small villages breed closer encounters, with infected locals unwittingly spread the virus to their neighbors. The sources requested anonymity for fear of adding to a game of broken telephone often prevalent in smaller villages.
A similar wave of visitors from Western Europe and continental Croatia hit many other islands and coastal villages, well before the government barred people from leaving their legal residence.
Residents along the coast reportedly complained it was a demographic shift at the wrong time. Similar migrations from affluent cities to vacation homes helped the spread of coronavirus in other Western European countries, notably Italy.
Reports of Slovenians and Italians posting up in their weekend homes on the coast began trickling — in particularly from islands off Zadar’s coast. Dugi Otok and Preko, two islands within the Zadar archipelago, asked authorities to help track the influx of foreigners.
Many settled down to ride out the pandemic on the coast. Locals complained they violated the government’s strict self-isolation rules. Some reportedly weren’t registered through eVisitor, the Croatian government’s main tool for tracking guests within the country.
Zadar’s local police asked residents to help report any unregistered arrivals. By then, Murter was well on its way towards a quarantine.
“Murter is not big and we can see in recent days that there is an increased amount of cars with foreign license plates,” the island’s Tourist Board Director Mateja Bašić told Jutarnji List days before the quarantine. “There are a lot of people moving here who do not live here over the year. They are mostly domestic, but there are also foreigners who have decided to stay here since the whole virus story began.”
It’s not that Murter and other smaller settlements didn’t try to slow COVID-19’s spread. The town’s Civil Protection Directorate introduced rules limiting the number of customers allowed into closed spaces and closing all non-essential businesses on March 16, five days before the Croatian government’s own measures.
Murter has become a small-scale version of what could await larger cities and towns across Croatia, should they face a similar spike in infections.
Locals cannot leave the quarantined area. Roads leading to the island’s settlements are bookended by a police checkpoint. Delivery trucks need a police escort into and out of the village, and drivers are not allowed to leave their trucks.
Murter’s quarantine began on March 25, after 15 cases were recorded on the island. The municipality introduced the strictest limits on movement in the country. Teams were created to care for the elderly. Like many islands, Murter’s population is overwhelmingly elderly, with numerous health problems and sparse medical options. The smaller societal circle also means higher odds of exposure.
“We don’t know who was in contact with who,” said Toni Turčinov, Murter’s mayor in the days after the quarantine. “We were all in contact with some infected person. We don’t know what to do or who to address.”
For the latest on coronavirus in Croatia, check out the dedicated TCN section.