Delhi reopens restaurants, malls and interstate travel

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Restaurants, shopping malls and places of worship are allowed to open in Delhi from Monday but they will have to strictly adhere to the guidelines laid down by the Centre, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Sunday, allowing the resumption of these activities in the national capital after a gap of over 70 days.

His government also announced the opening of Delhi’s borders, but clarified that hotels and banquet halls will not open for now because such facilities could be used to treat coronavirus disease (Covid-19) patients with a rise in infections.

While a large number of religious places are likely to open on Monday, uncertainty surrounds malls and restaurants. Many of them said they will need two to three days to put safety measures in place and prepare for what is going to be a new normal in the city that ended Sunday with 28,936 Covid-19 cases and 812 fatalities.

The reopening comes amid a spike in caseloads in the city.

“All enterprises and religious institutes will have to ensure full adherence to norms concerning social distancing, hygiene and everything required to contain the spread of the disease,” Kejriwal said in a digital press briefing.

“The order shall not cover hotels and banquet halls for now. Such facilities may need to be used as extensions of hospitals to augment bed capacity in the days to come,” he said, in remarks that came on the day the city registered a rise of 1,282 coronavirus cases.

Though the Centre fixed June 8 as the date for resumption of malls, restaurants, hotels and places of worship, the Delhi government decided not to lift the ban on these activities in a previous order issued earlier this month. But officials said at that time there will be a review of the situation before Monday.

A senior government official who did not want to be named said the move to open malls and restaurants is aimed at protecting livelihoods, which have been severely affected due to the economic fallout of the lockdown.

“The government took the decision after a week-long assessment...The message from the chief minister was clear: we have to go for phased relaxations in a scientific manner...the basic idea is that people will have to learn living with Covid, but there’s nothing to panic as long as the health care infrastructure is capable of taking the increasing caseload,” this official said.

Jugal Kishore, head of community medicines department at Sardarjung Hospital, said it is understandable that the government took some time in taking a call as “shopping malls, restaurants and places of worship are locations with high risk...”

“(But) Malls and restaurants also employ thousands of people...It is unfortunate that we are in a position in which relaxations are being implemented at a time when Covid-19 cases are going up....the government could have delayed the relaxations concerning the reopening of places of religious worship,” he said.

Lifting border curbs, the government also said there shall be no restriction on inter-state movement of persons and goods. “No separate permission/approval/e-permit will be required for such movements,” an order said late on Sunday night.

After Kejriwal’s announcement, authorities at several malls appeared undecided about the reopening date. Restaurants in popular marketplaces such as Connaught Place and Khan Market, too, said they will need some time to put in place all arrangements, such as change in seating plans.

A spokesperson of a prominent mall in South Delhi said the shopping centre has drafted its own standard operating procedures (SOPs) in addition to the ones issued by the Union health ministry. “We will need at least two-three days to put all measures in places. A final date will be decided by tomorrow (Monday),” the spokesperson said on the condition of anonymity.

Delhi, which imposed a shutdown on March 23 (two days before the national lockdown), has already allowed the opening of offices — both government and private — and marketplaces, except malls. HT reported on Sunday that mall owners and restaurants are busy preparing SOPs on social distancing and hygiene measures in anticipation that the Delhi government will allow them to function.

A spokesperson of Saket’s Select Citywalk mall, which has prepared a detailed SOP, said the establishment has introduced some changes in design and layout across entrances and public spaces. “…There will be temperature checks at entry points, with visitors passing through disinfectant tunnels for additional safety. A visitor registration book will be maintained for records, and all visitors will be advised to have the Aarogya Setu app (the government’s contact tracing app) in their phones. There are several other measures taken to ensure social distancing,” the spokesperson said.

The Centre’s guidelines require shopping malls to screen all visitors and allow individuals with no symptoms; maintain isolation rooms in case someone takes ill; and ensure that cinema halls inside malls remain closed, among other measures.

At the upscale Khan Market, restaurant owners said they are happy that they can resume operations. “We will have to ensure that people maintain distance while entering and leaving the restaurant. We have to change the sitting layout of the place and will have to remove a few tables and chairs. A lot of work has to be done before we open up. It will take a few days,” said Anshu Tandon, the president of Khan Market Welfare Association and the owner of a restaurant.

Several restaurants in Delhi are also working on a digital menu to bring down the chances of infection. Federal guidelines require restaurants to ensure not more than 50% capacity is occupied, arrange seats to ensure social distance, direct employees to wear masks and gloves, among other steps.

“The previous order said that restaurants can’t open. From tomorrow (Monday), we will start work (on preparations), which should be done in three-four days,” Manpreet Singh, treasurer of the National Restaurant Association of India, said.

“As part of the precautions, we have decided that staff members will wear masks, face shields, gloves; hand sanitisers will be placed on all tables. The distance between tables has been increased. We will screen all the customers,” he said.

Places of worship, meanwhile, expedited preparations to welcome devotees. The central guidelines for religious places prohibit distribution of prasad, physical contact with idols and holy books, and choirs and singing groups, among other steps.

The iconic Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, which was closed even on Eid last month, is likely to see people turning up for prayers on Monday. Syed Ahmed Bukhari, the shahi imam of the 17th century mosque, put the average turnout for Friday prayers at 8,000-10,000 in summers and 22,000 in winters. Every day about 1,500 people offered prayers at the mosque before the lockdown.

Bukhari said he is expecting fewer devotees as “we have put in place measures to ensure social distancing”. “We are announcing that people have to get their own musalla (prayer mat) as carpets are being removed. We will maintain a distance between two rows...We are also asking people to do wuzu (washing up) at home before coming to here for prayers,” he said.

Hindu religious places such as the Jhandewalan temple, Gauri-Shankar in Walled City and the Hanuman temple in Connaught Place, among others, have drawn circles on the floors to ensure distancing, and done away with prasad and flowers as offerings.

Akshardham temple, which is a popular tourist destination, will be shut till June 15. The temple complex used to get close to 8,000 visitors daily before the lockdown. Janak Dave, director and trustee of Akshardham temple, said, “...we have to make elaborate arrangement to first sanitise the complex and ensure social distancing. A decision regarding whether to open the complex or not will be taken later on.”

At gurdwaras in the city, additional personnel have been deployed for social distancing even though the langar (community kitchen) is not starting from Monday, said Harmeet Singh Kalka, the general secretary of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee.

Father Savarimuthu Shankar, who is the spokesperson of Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, said the body has yet to issue directions to the churches.

A section of city residents expressed concerns over the government’s move. BS Vohra, president of Federation of East Delhi resident welfare associations, said, “The government should reconsider opening all markets and malls....the number of cases has increased manifold.”

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