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South Africans Walk Outside as Country Eases Virus Lockdown

A woman walks her dogs in Cape Town, South Africa, May 1, 2020, as the government began a phased easing of its strict lockdown measures in a bid to cut down on the spread coronavirus.

A festive atmosphere has enlivened South Africa's streets as the country marks the Workers' Day public holiday and also has begun easing its strict lockdown conditions.

From Johannesburg to Cape Town and other areas across the country thousands of people, most with mandated face masks and keeping some distance, promenaded outside. For the first time in five weeks, people were permitted to leave their homes for exercise between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. The regulations impose a night curfew prohibiting movement of most residents from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m.

South Africa has reported the most cases of COVID-19 in Africa with more than 5,600 confirmed and 83 deaths.

As South Africa eased down one notch to Level 4 restrictions, many people will be able to return to work in small batches and many businesses will resume limited operations. Many mines, factories and agricultural businesses can resume operations in phases, starting with only a third of employees allowed to return to work to be sure that they maintain safe conditions.

Public transport, including trains and buses, will begin operating with restricted numbers of passengers. Personal cars are restricted to three people per vehicle.

Even with the easing, South Africa's lockdown remains strict, with no sales of liquor and cigarettes permitted, which some have criticized as puritanical. However health officials warn that smoking might exacerbate respiratory problems experienced with COVID-19. The ban on sales of alcohol has reduced brawls and traffic accidents, according to police.

Ordinarily South Africa marks Workers' Day with rallies by trade unions and political parties, but these are not possible because of the lockdown regulations.

"We want to take this opportunity to pay special dedication to our frontline health workers who are confronting this virus on daily basis in this difficult time," said Jacob Khawe, secretary in Gauteng province of the ruling party, the African National Congress.

According to officials, schools should reopen in phases starting June 1 with the first batch being Grade 7 and Grade 12 pupils, the oldest classes in primary and secondary schools, respectively. But teachers' unions have protested, saying schools should not be reopened until safe conditions can be assured.

There is still no date as to when higher education institution will open, with the sector increasingly looking towards online learning.

The country has been on a nationwide lockdown since March 27, halting most economic activities in the country as it sought to limit people's movements to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Minibus taxis and buses will be allowed to operate at 70% capacity for extended hours until 8 p.m., with all passengers required to wear masks and the vehicles required to be sanitized after every load.
Masks and social distancing will be required in trains, which were completely halted during the first lockdown.

Restaurants and fast food outlets, which have been closed throughout the first five weeks of the lockdown, will only be allowed to sell takeaways by delivery.

Many restrictions remain in place, however, including the ban on domestic and international travel.
South Africa will only reduce restrictions by moving to Level 3 when it achieves target rates of infection, said Health minister Zweli Mkhize without specifying the rates.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has emphasized that his government is balancing the need to curb the spread of the virus with pressure to minimize economic hardships, especially to South Africa's most vulnerable poor.

Ramaphosa has rolled out a $26 billion socio-economic relief package for the country.

Community screening and testing is increasing. Community health workers have already screened more than 3.6 million people and conducted more than 200,000 tests. Officials say they will be on the lookout for hot spot areas of high concentrations of cases where they will target isolation measures.

South Africa's Western Cape province, which includes the city of Cape Town, has the highest number of cases with more than 2,340.

The economic hub of Gauteng province, which includes the largest city, Johannesburg, has more than 1,440 cases.