Temporary Travel Ban for Tourists from Outside EEA and EFTA

Icelandair airplane Keflavík airport.

As of Friday, Iceland is temporarily closing its borders to tourists from countries outside of the EEA and EFTA, RÚV reports. Travellers from outside these areas will not be allowed to enter Iceland unless they can demonstrate that they are coming on “urgent business.” These new restrictions are in line with the EU’s March 17 recommendation that all EU and Schengen countries limit the entry of third-country nationals in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The travel ban is expected to last for 30 days and is not expected to have significant impact on tourist arrivals, as tourism to Iceland has already been significantly curtailed in the wake of the ongoing pandemic.

The EEA (European Economic Area) includes Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Republic of Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Iceland is part of EFTA (the European Free Trade Area) with three other countries: Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland.

Per an announcement on the Icelandic government’s website, citizens of the above-named countries will still be able to freely enter Iceland. The travel ban also stipulates that foreign nationals from outside the EEA and EFTA who reside in Iceland will also be permitted to enter the country. Professionals in certain fields are also exempt from the travel ban no matter their nationality, for instance healthcare workers and those involved in cargo transportation.

Icelandic Population Increased by 2% Last Year

Iceland had a total population of 364,134 last year, marking a 2% increase in population in one year. This is among the findings of new data published by Statistics Iceland on Friday.

There is a reasonably even split of men (186,941) and women (177,193) in the country, although the number of men increased a little more (2.2%) than the number of women (1.7%). Data was not available on the number of nonbinary people in Iceland as of January 1. (Icelanders passed the Gender Autonomy Act in June 2019, giving individuals the right to change their official gender according to their lived experience and register as neither male nor female).

The population increased all over the country, but the biggest proportional increase was in South Iceland—3.9% or 1,053 people. Not unexpectedly, the capital region saw a significant increase: 2.1% (4,803 persons). The Westfjords had the smallest increase in population, growing by 52 inhabitants over the whole region.

Ten out of 72 municipalities in Iceland now have more than 5,000 inhabitants. Seven municipalities had fewer than 100 residents; 39 had fewer than 1,000.

Last year also saw a jump in the number of nuclear families in Iceland, defined as “couples with or without children under the age of 18 years or single parents with children under 18 years.” As of January 1, 2020, there were 84,668 in Iceland, versus 83,358 the year before.

US Stealth Bombers Fly Over Iceland

Two American B2 Stealth Bombers flew over Iceland earlier this week alongside supporting fighter jets from the UK and Norway, Business Insider reports. The March 16 fly-over occurred six months after the US’s B2A Spirit made its first flight to Iceland and is viewed as evidence of “the increasing attention that the US and its partners are paying to the region.”

Iceland’s location midway between North America and Europe and right in the middle of an increasingly traversable Arctic trade route means that it is of tactical and economic interest to many nations and international bodies such as NATO. Reporting on this week’s deployment, the Norwegian newspaper The Barents Observer referred to the region as “a naval chokepoint, important for the Russian navy in case of a conflict.” Norwegian naval forces have spent the last few years running drills “aimed at protecting the strategic important ballistic missile subs sailing the Barents Sea and the Arctic in case of an escalating global conflict” and view training with NATO allies in the region as a priority.

The US’s B2s were taking part in a Bomber Task Force Europe 20-2 deployment and departed from RAF Fairford in the UK. Their support aircraft, British F-15C Eagles and Norwegian F-35 Lightning IIs, took off from RAF Fairford in the UK and Keflavík respectively. “Norway’s F-35s are in Iceland as part of what NATO calls its Airborne Surveillance and Interception Capabilities,” reported Business Insider, “to meet Iceland’s Peacetime Preparedness Needs mission, which started after the US withdrew from the island in 2008.”

The Norwegian fighters landed in Iceland on February 19 and brought 130 military and civilian personnel to work with the Icelandic Coast Guard during their three-week deployment.

Earthquake Swarm Near Þorbjörn

Grindavík - Þorbjörn

Numerous earthquakes were recorded just west of the volcano Þorbjörn, near the village of Grindavík in South Iceland on Thursday, RÚV reports.

An earthquake measuring 3.3 was recorded just before 5pm on Thursday and was followed by another measuring 3.2. Both quakes originated not far from the volcano Þorbjörn, which experienced another earthquake measuring 5.2 last week. Land rise was detected around Þorbjörn on Wednesday but its progress has been quite slow. The recent rise and earthquake activity are being monitored by scientists.

A number of aftershocks were measured around Þorbjörn after Thursday’s quakes and were felt as far as the capital area, almost 50 km [31 mi] away.

“There’s an earthquake swarm in progress and we’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” remarked Kristín Jónsdóttir, the Icelandic Met Office’s Earthquakes Hazards Officer. The quakes are shallow, she continued, and scientists cannot currently rule out the possibility that they are somehow related to geothermal energy production at the HS Orka power plant nearby. If the quakes are not connected to geothermal energy production, the next step will be to determine if magma has been collecting in the area, which scientists think is likely.

When asked, Kristín said that there will likely be more earthquakes around Grindavík in the coming days.

Alþingi Will Only Convene For COVID-Related Business

Alþingi Icelandic parliament

Starting on Friday, Icelandic parliament will only convene to deal with issues that are directly related to the COVID-19 virus, RÚV reports. This precaution will be in place until at least April 20.

The decision to postpone all non-COVID-related business was made in the wake of news that three parliamentary employees are confirmed to have been infected by the virus and are now in isolation. The employees all work in Skúlahús, a building on Kirkjustræti which houses additional parliamentary offices. All other employees who work in Skúlahús have been quarantined.

The new dictate regarding limited parliamentary sessions is, therefore, a timely effort to curb the spread of the virus as much as possible. Reducing the number of parliamentary meetings reduces the risk of infection among MPs and should, therefore, allow Alþingi to continue to address important public health issues in a timely manner.

Friday’s parliamentary session is expected to focus on the passing of two new bills intended to reduce financial hardship on businesses and individuals whose livelihoods have been impacted by the pandemic. For one, the Welfare Committee and Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason are currently working on amendments to a bill regarding wage relief for workers whose hours have been cut or who are otherwise facing under-employment.

In its original form, the bill stated that the Icelandic government would pay up to half of the wages due to workers with whom an employer has signed a reduced employment rate contract. Combined with employer contributions and payments from the Unemployment Insurance Fund, this was intended to bring underemployed workers’ wages to 80% of their full salary. However, it’s likely that after Friday’s meeting, the government’s share of wage payments may well increase to 75%. With employer and Unemployment contributions, this would bring workers’ salaries up to as much as 90% of their full salary. The total amount received is not currently supposed to exceed ISK 650,000 a month ($4,617/€4,327), but it is possible that this cap will be raised as well.

The measure could cost the government up to ISK 20 billion ($1.42 million/€1.33) and would extend until June 1.

Parliament also intends to introduce new economic stimulus measures, as the economic situation in Iceland has deteriorated much faster than expected when the government rolled out its initial measures on March 10. Two possible measures being considered are the cancellation of payroll taxes for businesses and government guarantees on business loans. These measures would update the relief bill that was already approved by parliament which allowed businesses to defer payment on a portion of their withholding and payroll tax payments.