Saudi Arabia begins reopening as coronavirus cases exceed 80,000

Riyadh, May 28 (efe-epa).- Saudi Arabia embarked Thursday on the first phase of a gradual lifting of the restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, even as the number of confirmed cases in the Kingdom topped 80,000, by far the most of any country in the Arab world.

A few hours after Saudis were allowed to leave their homes for the first time in four days, the Ministry of Health said that confirmed Covid-19 infections reached 80,185, while the death toll stood at 411.

Saudi authorities imposed a 96-hour curfew last Saturday for Eid al-Fitr, which culminates the holy month of Ramadan, following a surge in infections during the month of fasting.

Thursday, Saudis outside the holy city of Mecca were allowed to leave their homes between 6.00 am and 3.00 pm with authorization granted via a mobile app.

Al Anoud al-Batin, 24, praised the government’s decision to ease the restrictions.

“The people are now well aware (of the situation) and the government can depend on their commitment to prevent the spread of the virus,” she told Efe.

Saudi Arabia imposed some of the toughest measures in the region to contain the coronavirus, including closing its airspace and quarantining entire provinces.

Those measures, however, had an impact on the country’s economy, leading the government to reduce subsidies and public investment while boosting the value added tax by 200 percent.

Some Saudis were permitted to return to work Thursday.

“Everybody is excited to go back to their jobs. The curfew affected all of us psychologically, professionally,” al-Babtin said. “This is salvation for everybody.”

The government presented this week a three-stage plan for Saudi Arabia – with the exception of Mecca – to return to normal.

Besides ending the round-the-clock curfew, phase one includes allowing the resumption of interprovincial travel by private vehicle.

A second phase will get underway next Sunday with a further five-hour reduction of the curfew and the resumption of some economic activities and domestic flights. And mosques can open for Friday prayers.

All restrictions are to be lifted June 21, but wearing a mask in public will be mandatory.

It remains unclear when and how normalization will be extended to Mecca and whether the annual pilgrimage (Hajj) to the holy city by Muslims from around the world will take place this year.

The Saudi government has offered no additional guidance regarding the 2020 Hajj since early March, when Riyadh advised Muslims abroad to delay making reservations for the journey to Mecca.

Authorities in some Muslim-majority nations, notably Malaysia, have called on the Kingdom to announce a decision on the Hajj, an event typically held in late July. EFE sa-se-cgs/ta-dr

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