What It’s Like to Visit Europe During the Pandemic

Hong Kong–based reader John Louie recently returned from a two-month stay in Latvia to see immediate family. We asked him about his experience navigating the new rules as a non-E.U. resident.

The cathedral and Old Town of Riga, Latvia on the banks of the Daugava River. (Photo: bruev/iStock)

Apart from a passport, what other documents were required when you entered the E.U.?

I had to present a Covid-19 vaccination record and a certificate showing a negative result from a PCR test, issued no less than 72 hours before arrival at my final destination. Since I was coming in from Hong Kong, which is on the E.U.’s “white list” of low-risk countries and territories, I did not need to go into self-isolation.

Each E.U. country has its own separate rules for visitors, so I also had to complete an online electronic confirmation form on covidpass.lv, which must be submitted no earlier than 48 hours before entering Latvia. Afterward a QR code was sent by email; I was asked to show this at Riga Airport upon arrival. As I was transiting through Helsinki, I also checked the entry requirements for Finland in case anything else was required.


What was the transit process like at Helsinki Airport?

My stopover was quick and quite hassle-free. As Finland was the first Schengen country I landed in, the immigration officers stamped my passport and checked my vaccination certificate, which I felt was one of the biggest differences to the “old normal.” The other was being asked for the Covidpass QR code issued by Latvia at the boarding gate for my onward flight to Riga, the Latvian capital.


Did you need to apply for and use an E.U. Digital Covid Certificate?

During my two-month stay in Europe, the E.U. Digital Covid Certificate was only issued to people who were vaccinated within the E.U. Legally, visitors to Latvia from outside the E.U. are not required to have the E.U. Digital Covid Certificate, but they are supposed to carry their passport and vaccination record for checking whenever they go to restaurants, shopping centers, museums, and other indoor tourist attractions.

[Editor’s note: France has just opened applications for travelers who have been inoculated outside the bloc with vaccines approved by the European Medicines Agency.]


When you ate out, were there contactless menus or requirements to check in via QR code?

Every place I went to had an electronic scanner to scan the QR code of the E.U. Digital Covid Certificate. I discovered that not having the QR code was inconvenient in some restaurants and public facilities where the staff either didn’t speak English (and therefore couldn’t read my vaccination certificate), or had not been empowered by management to be flexible with vaccinated customers from outside the E.U. I had no trouble in outdoor dining areas because the E.U. Digital Covid Certificate is only required for indoor venues.

Riga’s UNESCO-listed historic center has a wealth of art nouveau buildings. (Photo: Makalu/Pixabay)

What was the attitude to mask-wearing in Latvia? Were there mask mandates in place?

Most people in Riga were quite disciplined and observed the requirement to wear masks when taking public transport and visiting shopping centers, supermarkets, and shops. Unlike in Asia, people normally don’t wear masks outdoors. This is understandable as Riga only has a population of around 700,000 and you don’t find crowds anywhere.


Was there a visible emphasis on health and safety at the hotel? How did the breakfast service work?

All the front office and restaurant staff kept their masks on, but this was not the case for housekeeping. There was a general guidance for all guests to wear masks in public areas except when seated at the table. By and large, most people observed this rule.

From the time I arrived in late August to before the new lockdown started on October 21, the hotel served a normal buffet breakfast. Everyone was expected to wear their masks when they pick up food and drinks from the buffet. The hotel also provided disposable plastic gloves, but I saw that less than 10 percent of guests used them.


When Latvia returned to lockdown, how did the new restrictions impact your stay?

Dine-in services were not permitted at restaurants and all non-essential shops had to close. The government also imposed an overnight curfew between 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., so I made sure I got back to the hotel before 8 p.m. each evening during the last 10 days of my stay.

Once the lockdown started, the hotel stopped all dine-in meals in its restaurant but guests could pick up their own breakfast every morning. A buffet table was laid out where hotel staff wearing masks and disposable gloves would fill food boxes with items of each guest’s choice as in a cafeteria. Then the guests had to bring the breakfast up to their own rooms. The restaurant still took lunch and dinner orders, with room service being the default arrangement.


Was it easy to book and arrange a pre-departure Covid test for the return journey?

A member of the hotel’s front office staff helped me book my Covid testing appointment online, and I did the PCR test two days before leaving Latvia. The result was e-mailed to me that same evening. However, I found a typo in my name on the certificate. I asked the front office to contact the test center the next morning to resend my certificate with the correct spelling of my name, and this was done within a few hours.

What I’ve learned from the experience is this: don’t wait until the last day to take your pre-departure Covid test, but rather do it at least half a day to a day earlier, as long as it’s still within the timeframe set out by authorities at your destination. This leaves a bit of room so you can remedy any unforeseen complications. Especially in places where you do not speak the local language, ask the hotel to help you book your Covid test and resolve any subsequent issues that may arise.

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