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A Suspected Super-Spreader Event In St. Petersburg Prompts Fresh Scrutiny Of Russia's COVID Figures

The massive Scarlet Sails graduation ceremony in late June was the latest in a series of high-profile public events in St. Petersburg, a season of pageantry that defied health experts who warned against proceeding with such potential super-spreader events.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Standing onstage before 39,000 cheering teenagers in June, the governor of St. Petersburg opened the city’s annual high school graduation ceremony with a message of defiance to those who warned against mass gatherings in the face of a surging coronavirus epidemic.

“This is your victory,” Aleksandr Beglov told the crowd, before fireworks lit up the night sky and a spectacular flotilla sailed along the Neva River behind the red masts of the Rossiya, a ship named after the Kremlin-linked bank that finances the event, called Scarlet Sails. “Such a night happens only once in a lifetime.”

This is a mockery of common sense.”
-- Edgard Zapashny, Moscow State Circus

The night may have produced more than just fond memories.

That morning, on June 25, the city of 5 million people had reported 1,100 new cases and 97 deaths linked to the coronavirus, its highest daily toll since the pandemic began. Footage showed patients lying in the corridors of hospitals where no free beds remained. Government critics predicted that the gathering would only exacerbate the crisis.

At the time, cities across Russia were introducing QR codes as a mandatory requirement for indoor dining and visiting some resorts, and park benches and playgrounds were being cordoned off to prevent the spread of the virus as a third wave swept the nation. After months of ambiguous statements about vaccination, officials urged a skeptical public to get one of Russia’s three approved shots and help slow the contagion.

Against this backdrop, the images of thousands of maskless students reveling in St. Petersburg as pop stars played on an outdoor stage and fireworks boomed overhead quickly provoked an uproar. Many people had lost loved ones to the pandemic and were fed up with the authorities’ perceived double standards.

“You officials are trying to force people to vaccinate by any means, and at the same time you spend government funds on totally unnecessary festivals with many thousands in attendance!” Edgard Zapashny, a well-known performer and head of the Moscow State Circus, wrote in a widely shared Instagram post. “This is a mockery of common sense.”

In fact, Scarlet Sails was only the latest in a series of high-profile public events in St. Petersburg, comprising a season of pageantry that defied the dire prognoses of health experts who warned about the consequences of proceeding with such potential super-spreader events as hospitalizations and COVID cases surged.

In early June, the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum brought together key figures in Russia’s business community for a networking event that the organizers called a celebration of Russia’s exit from the pandemic, and President Vladimir Putin came to his hometown to give a keynote address.

That same month and into July, seven matches of the Euro 2020 soccer championship were held, packing St. Petersburg’s main stadium with a total of 133,000 spectators, and its dedicated fan zones with 245,000 fans.

Thousands of spectators attended the Euro 2020 quarterfinal match between Switzerland and Spain in St. Petersburg on July 2.
Thousands of spectators attended the Euro 2020 quarterfinal match between Switzerland and Spain in St. Petersburg on July 2.

Countries to which the 29,000 foreign supporters returned began reporting a sharp uptick in cases. In Finland, the Health Ministry said that 86 soccer fans were diagnosed with the coronavirus after their return from St. Petersburg, adding that over 40 percent of new coronavirus cases in the Nordic country were attributed to arrivals from neighboring Russia.

Last week, the head of the Kremlin’s coronavirus task force, Tatyana Golikova, finally acknowledged that the soccer games had led to a spike in COVID-19 cases, but local officials in St. Petersburg played down the damage from these events.

“You can’t get infected at a stadium,” Aleksei Sorokin, the head of the Euro 2020 committee in St. Petersburg, inaccurately told the newspaper Novaya gazeta in response to the reports from Finland.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 7. Organizers called it a celebration of Russia’s exit from the pandemic.
Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 7. Organizers called it a celebration of Russia’s exit from the pandemic.

Questioned about the infection risk from mass gatherings amid the mounting uproar over the Scarlet Sails event, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov insisted that all necessary precautions are always taken by authorities -- despite evidence showing that very few of the students in St. Petersburg were wearing masks or practicing social distancing.

“After several days, it’ll become clear whether there’s been a spike [in the city’s cases] or not,” Peskov told reporters. “We'll all see the statistics.”

Funny Figures

The problem is that official statistics inspire little trust in St. Petersburg.

In the beginning of June, just days before the economic forum, an odd thing began happening. The webpage that published official coronavirus figures for the city suddenly stopped reporting infection and vaccination rates, leaving organizers, guests, and residents in the dark.

The authorities clearly tried to cover up the rise in cases."
-- Aleksei Kupriyanov, Russia's Academy of Sciences

“They refuse to answer my questions,” local lawmaker Boris Vishnevsky told the independent TV channel Dozhd on June 26. “We don’t know how many hospital beds are left or how many people are on ventilators. We don’t know the exact number of daily hospitalizations. We know only how many new infections there are.”

Then on July 9, Russia’s national database on the coronavirus -- a website consulted by the World Health Organization and other international bodies -- showed almost no infected people in St. Petersburg. The majority of patients had either died or recovered from the virus, the figures suggested, with only 711 active cases in the city -- 23 times less than a month prior, despite the nationwide surge. In Moscow, a city 2 1/2 times larger, 179,000 active cases were reported that day.

"The authorities clearly tried to cover up the rise in cases,” Aleksei Kupriyanov, a scientist with Russia's Academy of Sciences who has tracked the impact of the coronavirus on Russia's economy and society, told RFE/RL.

'This Is Too Much!'

An indication of how severe the situation had become came when St. Petersburg opened three new registry offices in July to ease the load on the main hub in the city center, which local news site Fontanka said was unable to cope with requests for death certificates.

Beglov’s account on the Russian social network VK received an avalanche of angry comments.

“The waiting room has 300 people in line for a single window,” wrote St. Petersburg resident Natalia Korneyeva. “People are already devastated over the death of a loved one, and now they have to handle such humiliation just to secure a single piece of paper -- this is too much!”

A hot evening brought large crowds into St. Petersburg's city center recently.
A hot evening brought large crowds into St. Petersburg's city center recently.

The city crematorium also announced it was working at full capacity.

“All 14 furnaces are operating, but instead of 120 bodies per day, they’re bringing 360,” said Valery Larkin, the head of the regional association of funeral home directors.

On July 12, Larkin announced that burial costs and other funeral services would be waived for families of coronavirus victims in order to ease the pressure on funeral homes. “We’ll only charge for the coffin and the wreaths,” he said.

St. Petersburg continues to record close to 2,000 new coronavirus cases daily, though the rate of vaccinations has risen somewhat amid a government push to encourage it. Nevertheless, the streets of the city are packed with tourists and locals savoring the sunny weather, and no restrictions are enforced in most of its packed bars and cafes.

On July 25, the city plans to host a huge naval parade featuring 54 ships, a military flyover, and large crowds thronging the streets. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said it will be “the most grandiose and most spectacular” version of the annual event ever held.

Government critics like Vishnevsky and independent analysts say it’s more of the same reckless political posturing. They are once again urging caution and warning that going ahead may only exacerbate an already dire situation.

“The real danger from events like Scarlet Sails, the economic forum, and the Euro 2020 matches was indirect,” said Kupriyanov. “It’s not that people gathered there and infected each other but that the entire city effectively lived in the complete absence of restrictions during the most dangerous month of the pandemic.”

Kupriyanov has spent months sounding the alarm, and he’s not optimistic about his chances of persuading officials to reconsider this time round.

“Our authorities are not accountable to the people or the voters,” he said. “They just do what they want.”

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.