JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South Africa, which imposed one of the world's strictest anti-coronavirus lockdowns five months ago, will significantly relax its restrictions Tuesday, including allowing the sales of liquor and cigarettes, as it appears the country has weathered its first peak of COVID-19 cases.
With numbers of cases and hospitalizations declining, the country will further loosen its regulations to permit the opening of bars, restaurants, gyms, places of worship and entertainment, all with distancing restrictions. Schools will reopen gradually from August 24, starting with grades 12 and 7 and a phased opening of other grades.
“This will come as a relief to all South Africans who have had to live under stringent restrictions for the last five months,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa Monday in his weekly letter to the nation.
“It is a sign of the progress we are making in reducing new infections and demand on our health facilities. It is also a very important development as we strive to restart our economy,” wrote Ramaphosa.
With more than 580,000 confirmed cases, South Africa has more than half of all reported cases in Africa. The 54 countries of the continent reported a total of more than 1.1 million cases on Monday, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
South Africa has recorded more than 11,800 deaths from COVID-19, while overall the continent has reported just over 25,600 deaths. The actual numbers of cases and deaths are estimated to be much higher, say health experts.
South Africa's new confirmed cases have dropped from an average of 12,000 per day at the peak in July to less than 5,000 per day last week, said Ramaphosa. South Africa confirmed 3,692 new cases in the last 24 hours. South Africa's recovery rate is 80%, he said.
“But it is too soon to celebrate," warned the president. "We are still very much in the middle of a deadly pandemic that has taken over 11,000 lives in South Africa alone ... there is always a chance of a resurgence of the disease.”
South Africa shut virtually all economic activity at the end of March, banning the sales of alcohol and cigarettes and ordering all people to stay at home. The country reduced its restrictions on June 1, but reimposed the liquor ban in July as cases surged.
Under significant pressure to resuscitate the country's economy, South Africa will loosen up considerably on Tuesday. Restaurants and bars will be allowed to serve alcohol to patrons until 10 p.m., while liquor stores will be allowed to sell for limited hours Monday through Thursday.
A nighttime curfew will remain in force from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and facemasks are mandatory in all public spaces. All gatherings are limited to 50 people.
The ban on travel between the country’s provinces has also been lifted, a move to boost domestic tourism, while the country remains closed to international travelers.
South Africans are now also allowed to visit family members and friends, which they have not been able to do since March.
“Many restrictions on social and economic activity have been lifted. With this comes increased risk of transmission,” wrote Ramaphosa. “We now need to manage this risk and ensure the gains we have made thus far in containing the pandemic’s spread are not reversed. The greatest threat to the health of our nation right now is complacency."