Hungary to start easing coronavirus curbs in capital from Monday

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Hungary will start lifting coronavirus restrictions in Budapest from Monday, though residents returning to shops or travelling on public transport will have to wear face masks, officials said on Saturday.

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Two weeks after easing the lockdown in other parts of the country, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said authorities had succeeded in controlling the spread of COVID-19 in the capital too.

“It has become clear that we’ve managed to curb the epidemic in Budapest as well,” he said in a video on his official Facebook page. “Therefore, we can shift to the second phase of defence in Budapest as well, cautiously ... and thus we lift the lockdown.”

From May 4, the government lifted some restrictions outside Budapest and its outskirts, allowing shops and restaurant terraces to reopen.

Orban’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyas said on state television that it was now time to gradually open up Budapest as the number of infected people has substantially declined, adding that the government had consulted first with medical experts.

He said restaurants and cafes would be able to reopen their terraces from Monday. All shops will also be allowed to open, but a special three-hour window will be maintained for the over-65s to do their grocery and pharmacy shopping.

Wearing a mask in shops and on public transport will be mandatory and social distancing must be maintained.

Public parks, the city zoo, swimming pools and baths will also be able to operate as usual from Monday while wedding parties with less than 200 participants will be permitted in Budapest from mid-June.

Despite the significant relaxing of the lockdown, schools will remain closed at least until the end of May nationwide.

A phased reopening is the government’s strategy to head off deeper and more lasting harm to the economy, which is expected to shrink by about 4% this year based on a Reuters survey.

The central European country of 10 million people imposed a nationwide lockdown in March. Some key sectors including tourism ground to a virtual standstill, and car makers’ temporarily halted production in March and April.

As of Saturday, Hungary had reported 448 deaths among a total of 3,473 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Some 1,655 of the infections were in Budapest.

Reporting by Krisztina Than; Editing by Pravin Char, Christina Fincher and Helen Popper