By Cynthia de Benito
Fatima, Portugal, Oct 13 (efe-epa).- Catholic faithful gathered to pray at Portugal’s Fatima shrine wearing masks and staying within circles marked on the ground to uphold social distancing.
Capacity was set at a maximum of 6,000 people to reduce the risk of contagion at the international annual pilgrimage.
There were concerns before the event, aggravated by a rise in coronavirus cases in Portugal.
Religious and health authorities agreed that a maximum of 6,000 people could be in the 48,000 square meter space, which before the pandemic used to hold around 100,000.
Dozens of volunteers stood by the entrance to the site with bottles of hand sanitizer for the pilgrims.
The floor was covered with white circles to ensure visitors maintained a safe distance from each other.
Manuel Correia and his wife Maria left their home in the north of Portugal at 4am to arrive at the shrine four hours later.
Sitting on folding stools in the front row they said they were satisfied with the new security measures.
“So far it’s going well, thank goodness. We’ve been coming here since 1963, always in May, and this year we haven’t been able to get here yet,” he said.
The pilgrimage began on Monday with a traditional candlelight procession attended by around 4,500 people.
Coronavirus infections have been rising in Portugal, with more than 1,000 daily cases reported over the last five days.
The country has recorded almost 88,000 infections and 2,094 deaths since the start of the pandemic and the government was preparing to announce new measures this week.
Tourism is an important industry for Portugal and many of the country’s businesses are dependent on visitors and have suffered huge losses during the pandemic.
The lack of visitors has had a huge impact on the shrine’s financial income, which shrank by 50 percent in September compared to the previous year with donations also halved.
Shrine rector Carlos Cabecinhas said the site was visited by 97 groups between October and November, compared to 733 in October alone last year.
A total of 51 staff have left, some due to non-renewal of contracts, retirement, resignation or by mutual agreement.
“The resources are not inexhaustible,” Cabecinhas said. EFE-EPA