Social distancing requirements are to be reduced from two metres to one in a bid to save thousands of companies in Northern Ireland.
Restaurant owners and hoteliers preparing to reopen on July 3 said the reduction was Stormont’s most significant step yet to protect jobs.
The country’s rate of coronavirus spread remains below one and powersharing ministers are coaxing the economy out of a deep freeze.
First Minister Arlene Foster said: “A minimum one-metre distance between individuals can be considered acceptable in circumstances where appropriate mitigations are made.”
She said the relaxations had been made through the efforts of people to drive down the rate of infection.
Hospitality Ulster chief executive Colin Neill said: “This is the most significant news since the announcement we were closed at the beginning of this crisis.”
He added: “This makes the difference between a sustainable business and a business that would open and go broke or not open at all and it means we can save jobs.”
Pub and restaurant owners have said they would be unviable if they had to adhere to two-metre social distancing to reduce the spread of disease.
Guidelines have been put in place to help outlets reopen safely.
Mrs Foster said: “Northern Ireland is opening up again, however there is an onus on all of us not to ease the fight and vigilance against Covid-19.”
She outlined a range of changes to the restrictions. They included:
– Places of worship can reopen from June 29
– Hotels and restaurants can reopen from July 3
– Visitor attractions barring museums and galleries can reopen from the same date
– Nail parlours and beauty salons will wait until July 6
– Elite athletes will be able to use indoor training facilities from June 29
– Betting shops can reopen from July 3
– Tattoo shops and reflexology can open on July 6
– Playgrounds will be unlocked on July 10 and libraries from July 16
– Competitive sport begins on July 17
– Leisure centres can reopen on August 7
Other dates for reopening laid out by Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill included:
– Seated venues such as bingo halls on July 29
– Indoor sports courts and skating rinks from August 7
– The return of socially-distanced indoor spectators to sporting events from August 28
– Open-air museums from late August.
Mrs O’Neill said: “We promised we wouldn’t keep things in place for any longer than necessary.”
On Thursday, the health department said the infection rate is still below one – which is deemed crucial to allowing further changes to the rules.
As of June 21, the seven-day rolling average of new cases was two.
In the past seven days from June 18, there have been four deaths reported.
Mrs Foster said she believed they could move to one-metre distancing due to measures to mitigate the risk.
She added ministers had been ruminating on the issue for some time.
“Nothing is risk free in this scenario and therefore it is important that the hospitality and tourism sector continues to work with the Executive to find the appropriate mitigations for their particular areas.
“Obviously hand hygiene remains a key part of that, having sanitisers.
“How the different hospitality venues are actually repurposed, how people are sitting at tables, whether there’s a need for having perspex in certain areas, all of these things will be looked at with the hospitality industry.”
Angela McGowan, CBI Northern Ireland director, said easing social distancing rules will make a substantial difference to the viability of thousands of firms.
Northern Ireland Hotels Federation chief executive Janice Gault said: “Today’s announcement is another positive step towards giving the sector a practicable framework and will dramatically improve viability for businesses with space constraints.”