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Bahrain eases coronavirus restrictions, Saudis announce hefty fines

DUBAI (Reuters) - Shops and industrial enterprises in Bahrain can open from Thursday while restaurants will stay closed to in-house diners, the Health Ministry said, as the Gulf state eases restrictions designed to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

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Bahrain shuttered non-essential shops and businesses in late March and barred entry of foreign visitors, but did not impose a curfew, unlike some other Gulf states.

Health Ministry officials told a news conference on Wednesday that employees and customers must wear face masks and practice physical distancing as restrictions are relaxed. Cinemas, sports facilities and salons remain closed.

The small island state has reported 3,720 infections with eight deaths from the COVID-19 respiratory disease. The total count in the six Gulf Arab states exceeds 78,014 with 430 deaths.

Other Gulf countries eased curfews and other social and business restrictions with the start of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan two weeks ago.

In Saudi Arabia, where malls and wholesale shops reopened last week, authorities announced stringent new penalties for residents and citizens found to violate measures still in place to limit the spread of the virus.

Citing a royal decree signed on Tuesday, the Interior Ministry spokesman said curfew violators could be fined up to 100,000 riyals and face up to a year in prison.

Those found to violate quarantine rules could be fined up to 200,000 riyals and face up to two years in prison, while those found to intentionally spread the virus could face a fine of up to 500,000 riyals and up to five years in prison.

Non-Saudi offenders would also be deported and permanently barred from re-entering the country.

The number of new infections in the kingdom continues to hover around 1,600 per day. Saudi Arabia has recorded 31,938 cases in total with 209 deaths so far.

Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah sought to quell fears over the steadily mounting numbers, saying that the uptick in confirmed cases was due to increased testing by health officials.

In a video posted on the health ministry’s Twitter page, he also credited the kingdom’s tracking and tracing efforts, as well as its treatment protocols, with keeping the fatality rate, currently at 0.7%, relatively low.

Bahrain this week opened a 152-bed COVID-19 field hospital intensive care unit on an empty piece of land in Sitra, as part of a plan to create 500 additional ICU beds for critical cases.

Reporting by Alaa Swilam and Lisa Barrington and Raya Jalabi; Editing by Alison Williams and Mark Heinrich