Ireland comes back to life as lockdown eased


Dublin (AFP)

Ireland's shops and workplaces lurched back to life on Monday, as the nation pressed ahead with its plan to lift coronavirus lockdown restrictions ahead of schedule.

All shops were permitted to trade and travel limits were massively relaxed in a dramatic acceleration of the government's reopening plans.

By midday (1100 GMT), Dublin's main shopping thoroughfare, Grafton Street, was thronging with people, although many outlets remained boarded up.

Staff in face masks and visors guided shoppers into small queues outside premises.

Inside were bottles of hand sanitiser and "one way" walking paths marked on aisles.

"I suppose the word I'd think of is 'surreal' at the moment," Weir & Sons jewelry shop manager David McCormick told AFP -- his voice muffled behind a plastic face visor.

"We're retailing in a way that we've never done before."

City officials have installed new public toilets on the street, as restaurants and pubs are yet to open their doors.

And at nearby Books Upstairs, only 12 shoppers were allowed to browse the shelves at a time.

Behind a perspex barrier manager Mary McAuley disinfected a customer's bank card before handing it back.

"We're really, really, really unsure," she said through her face mask.

"But this is kind of heartening," she gestured at the steady stream of trade. "There's been more customers to be honest than I would have expected to come in."

- Back to work -

Employees able to maintain social distancing were also encouraged to return to their workplaces as Ireland took its largest step yet since lockdown was imposed on March 28.

"This is a great day for our country," health minister Simon Harris told state broadcaster RTE.

"It's a day of hope, it's a day that we weren't guaranteed to get to."

Ireland has suffered 1,679 deaths in the outbreak, according to the latest official figures.

Deaths recorded in a single day peaked at 77 in mid-April, but on Sunday the figure had fallen to just one.

Prime Minister Leo Varadkar announced the accelerated easing of restrictions on Friday, and brought forward the planned date to drop almost all coronavirus containment measures from August to July.

Under the new blueprint, social home visits were permitted for the first time, with up to six allowed to meet. Vulnerable people "cocooning" are allowed "a small number of visitors".

Meanwhile, citizens were allowed to travel anywhere in their county of residence or up to 20 kilometres (12 miles) from home, in an unexpected extension of the previous five-kilometre limit.

- Note of caution -

Nonetheless, radio broadcasts on Monday urged citizens to "stay local".

Health minister Harris urged the public to visit only a modest list of friends and family, to strictly maintain social distancing and to log names in case they are needed for purposes of contact tracing.

Livestock markets and elite sports training facilities were also opened as scheduled under the second stage of the government roadmap.

Under the government plan, shops are not permitted to open before 10:30 am (0930 GMT) in order to prevent overcrowding on public transport and will allocate time for vulnerable customers.

Shopping centres will not reopen until next week, and must put in place measures to prevent the public congregating in shared spaces.

"Over the last few months, fear has exerted a kind of gravity pulling us down, but now we find there is hope lifting us up again," Varadkar said on Friday.