NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India will throw open shopping malls, restaurants and places of worship that typically attract large crowds next week, officials said, even though coronavirus infections are rising at the fastest daily rate than at any time in the past three months.
Anxious to jump-start an economy crippled by COVID-19 and put millions of people back to work, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is dismantling its vast lockdown of the 1.3 billion population imposed in March.
Strict guidelines will accompany the loosening of restrictions on Monday, however.
Hotel guests will be tested for fever, masks will be compulsory at all times, and restaurants will have to set tables apart to maintain social distancing when they reopen on Monday, according to rules issued by the federal home ministry.
Anurag Katriar, president of the National Restaurant Association of India, said dining needed to be made safe but restrictions such as reducing seating capacity to maintain distance between people would be difficult to sustain.
“Very few restaurants are planning to open up on June 8, Financially, the 50% seating capacity doesn’t work at all.”
In places of worship, people will be asked to wash their hands and feet before entering, and there will be no distribution of food offerings or sprinkling of holy water or touching of idols and holy books.
“In view of the potential threat of spread of infection, as far as feasible, recorded devotional music/songs may be played (but) choir or singing groups should not be allowed,” the home ministry said on its website.
India’s places of worship especially Hindu temples draw many thousands of people and the premises are usually not big enough to permit social distancing to curb any coronavirus contagion.
The large, wealthy Tirupati temple in southern India aims to keep pilgrims well apart by admitting a maximum 6,000 per day rather than the 80,000-100,000 it would normally allow.
Tirupati staff will wear protective suits and take random throat swabs from pilgrims, said Anil Singhal, the executive director of the temple’s trust organization.
Total coronavirus infections in India have reached 226,770, along with 6,348 deaths, the health ministry said on Friday. At the current rate of growth, the caseload will surpass Italy within the next two days to become the world’s sixth largest.
With this in mind, some health experts cautioned against a hasty reopening.
“Preventing cluster formations (of COVID-19 infections) is the need of the hour. We are opening up religious places too soon, too fast. Gods can wait,” Giridhar R Babu, epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India, wrote on Twitter.
Reporting by Sanjeev Miglani and Nidhi Verma with additional reporting by Abhirup Roy and Rajendra Jadhav in Mumbai; Editing by Mark Heinrich