Bulgaria plans to extend coronavirus restrictions until Jan. 31

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgaria plans to keep its schools, restaurants and shopping malls closed until Jan. 31 to contain the spread of coronavirus and help its strained healthcare system, the health minister said on Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Men wearing protective suits are seen outside a future temporary COVID-19 vaccination unit, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Sofia, Bulgaria, December 15, 2020. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

The restrictions, which were due to end on Dec. 21, have helped decrease the surge in new infections, but the country of 7 million people still has the highest COVID-19 death rate per 100,000 people in the European Union.

On Wednesday, Bulgaria reported 2,743 new coronavirus cases, down from about 4,000 per day in November, bringing the total infections to 184,287 including 6,005 deaths. Close to 7,000 people are in hospital.

“After observing the pressure on the healthcare system...we are proposing to extend the restrictions with few exceptions,” Health Minister Kostadin Angelov told a government meeting.

Under the plan, kindergartens and primary schools will be allowed to reopen as of Jan. 4. Restaurants at hotels will also be allowed to open for guests but at 50% of their capacity.

Restaurants and hotel owners have been pushing for the lifting of the restriction ahead of Christmas and New Year, but medical offcials say that would wipe out any positive effect so far.

The opening of hotels’ restaurants can be seen as an attempt to help the country’s ski resorts, hard hit by the pandemic, mitigate at least partially their losses.

Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said the extension of the restrictions would cost an additional 250 million levs ($156 million) to compensate closed businesses, but said the government would listen to the anti-COVID taskforce.

“We have to go through these days. The pandemic is unpredictable, so we need to protect ourselves with discipline, distance and disinfection,” he said in a statement.

($1 = 1.60 leva)

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Alison Williams and Angus MacSwan