Argentina talks up 'last stage' of pandemic as controls loosened

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An employee checks the temperature of a woman at the entrance to a school, amid a rise in coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases , in Buenos Aires, Argentina April 19, 2021. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

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BUENOS AIRES, Sept 21 (Reuters) - Argentina on Tuesday unveiled plans to ease coronavirus pandemic restrictions, including loosening strict border controls, allowing more commercial activities and getting rid of the mandatory wearing of face masks outdoors.

Health Minister Carla Vizzotti said the easing of rules would allow more economic, industrial and commercial activities in closed places, while borders would gradually reopen from this month, with all tourists allowed back in from November.

"We are in a very positive moment, we know that the pandemic has not ended, we have to maintain care," Vizzotti said in a news conference in Buenos Aires. "We are moving toward the full recovery of activities."

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Argentina, after a slow start to its COVID-19 vaccination campaign, has administered more than 49 million doses, including fully inoculating more than 20 million people out of its population of about 45 million. Cases and fatalities have fallen sharply.

The pandemic has hit the South American country hard, with some 5.24 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, and has hurt the popularity of center-left President Alberto Fernandez, who was recently forced into a Cabinet reshuffle after a bruising primary election defeat.

The president has pledged to roll out various measures to help Argentines, who have seen poverty levels rise steeply amid the pandemic, which led to a tough lockdown last year.

Cabinet chief Juan Manzur, newly sworn in on Monday, said that if the numbers kept improving then the country could be edging out of the worst of the health crisis.

"The data are very promising because if things continue in this direction, it means that we are perhaps experiencing the last stage of the pandemic," he said.

In a sign of the challenge the government still faces, protesters marched in Buenos Aires, the capital, on Tuesday with banners demanding more jobs and criticizing the International Monetary Fund, with which Argentina is negotiating a new deal.

"The emergency measures that are being announced... are insufficient," said Aylen Macia, a spokesman for one of the movements in the march, citing reported plans for payouts for retirees and a minimum wage hike.

"We want salaries that are in line with the basic family basket so that a typical family can make ends meet and for there to be concrete employment measures."

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Reporting by Eliana Raszewski; Writing by Adam Jourdan, Editing by Louise Heavens, Paul Simao and Dan Grebler

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