More than six months after the Centre imposed a hard lockdown due to the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, the Union home ministry moved closer to unlocking almost all activities by allowing a graded restart of schools, partial reopening of movie theatres, and large gatherings including political and religious events.
The latest easing of curbs permitted more activities in areas outside the containment zones including opening up cinemas, theatres and multiplexes with up to 50% of their seating capacity from October 15. The government also allowed flexibility to states and Union Territories to decide on reopening schools and coaching institutions from mid-October in a phased manner.
The guidelines said that the decision for opening schools and coaching institutions in a graded manner can be taken by the states/UT after October 15 “in consultation with the respective school/institution management, based on their assessment of the situation”.
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However, if students preferred to attend online classes, they would be permitted to do so. The guidelines said attendance must not be enforced, and must depend entirely on parental consent.
Officials of the Delhi government’s education department will hold a meeting on Thursday to discuss the rules issued by the Centre. “(We will) go through the guidelines, consult stakeholders, and take the decision on the reopening of schools in the national capital. We will hold a meeting on Thursday,” a senior official from Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia’s office said on condition of anonymity.
Another key decision taken during the latest unlocking exercise — which is the fifth in a series of such decisions since June 1 but with a changed nomenclature (earlier, the reopening process was called “Unlock”) — allows political, religious, social, cultural, and sports gatherings in “open spaces” with no limit, provided people wear masks, observe social distancing and there are adequate provisions to observe such rules from mid-October.
With the Bihar elections scheduled in October and the first week of November, allowing political gatherings in open spaces could pave the way for parties to hold rallies. The decision will also allow larger marriage functions, and other social and cultural activities during the upcoming festive season.
In closed spaces, however, gatherings with a maximum of 50% of the hall capacity and with a ceiling of 200 people have been allowed. Till now, the number of people allowed at such gatherings was capped at 100.
The guidelines, which come into effect from Thursday, said that state governments will issue their own detailed standard operating protocols (SOPs) for such gatherings in open spaces and halls.
The government imposed strict curbs on activities and travel across the country on March 25. After 68 days of a hard lockdown, the government began implementing a graded plan to reopen businesses and bring economic activities, hit hard by the pandemic and the restrictions that followed, back on track in June. It was then that the “Unlock 1” phase guidelines came into place. Shops, malls, hotels and restaurants, offices and religious places have been allowed to open in a phased manner over the past few months. Restrictions on interstate and intrastate travel too have been lifted. Some train services and flight operations, including limited flights to and from abroad, have resumed.
The home ministry said in the order that “latest guidelines, based on feedback received from states and Union Territories, and extensive consultations held with related central ministries and departments, are aimed at reopening more activities outside containment zones, but strict lockdown will continue in containment zones till October 31.”
For theatres, multiplexes and stand-alone cinema halls, allowed at 50% capacity, as well as entertainment parks, SOPs will be issued by the Union health ministry, while the sports ministry will issue SOPs for reopening of swimming pools for sportspersons from October 15, according to the guidelines.
Cinema hall owners have been demanding for a long time that they be allowed to run movie shows with limited capacity as they are facing huge losses. The ministry of information and broadcasting is expected to issue detailed SOPs in this regard in a few days.
Business to business (BZB) exhibitions, which were banned since March 22, have also been allowed.
International flights and railways will continue to operate as per existing guidelines. Currently, international flights are operating in air bubbles and under the Vande Bharat scheme. The guidelines said that regular international flights will remain suspended till October 31. For domestic flights, 60% capacity has been currently allowed by the government.
The railways will continue to operate about 300 special trains, with regular trains suspended indefinitely.
For higher education, the ministry of education will decide on the timing of the opening of colleges based on the assessment of the situation.
“However, higher education institutions only for research scholars (Ph.D) and post-graduate students in science and technology stream requiring laboratory/experimental works will be permitted to open from October 15,” the Centre said.
It reiterated that states and UTs shall not impose any local lockdowns or restrict any inter-state or intra-state movement of goods and individuals.
Like the previous guidelines on easing restrictions, the home ministry has advised vulnerable persons (people above 65 years of age, those with comorbidities, pregnant women, and children below the age of 10 years) to stay at home, except for meeting essential requirements and for health purposes. It said that the use of the Aarogya Setu mobile application should be encouraged.