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By Gemma Handy

Bars, gyms and the cinema are just 11 days away from being allowed to reopen to customers after two months of Covid-related closures. Restaurants will also be able to permit diners to eat on the premises, under the latest easing of lockdown restrictions announced by Cabinet last night.

As of June 1, all businesses with approved safety protocols in place to stave off a second wave of the coronavirus can resume operations.

Residents were warned however that the current 9pm to 5am curfew will remain in place.

Bar owners and restaurateurs are among those who have been urging the government to allow them to restart work as the economic fallout from the virus pandemic continues to tighten its grip on the country.

“Given that government sees the benefit in rebuilding the economy and restoring normal economic activity, as of June 1 we will lift the remaining restrictions on all other businesses,” Information Minister Melford Nicholas told a virtual press conference.

Business owners are encouraged to submit their own proposals for ensuring social distancing and thorough hygiene practices to the Ministry of Health. These will be considered alongside recommendations from regional health body PAHO to devise the “best fit” to move forward.

From Monday, all government offices and statutory bodies are also expected to resume full operations, Minister Nicholas continued.

“Based on the level of security we feel is in the country with respect to Covid, the time is right that all government offices will return to normal working hours,” he explained.

There are now just two remaining Covid-19 patients in Antigua, with no new confirmed cases in the last three weeks.

As soon as the two men, who are still hospitalised and breathing via ventilators, receive two consecutive negative tests for the virus – and assuming no more cases come to light – the nation can be officially declared Covid-free.

Meanwhile, Antigua and Barbuda continues to prepare for the return of tourists early next month.

The first commercial flight in 10 weeks will touch down at VC Bird International Airport on June 3. The arrival of the American Airlines plane from Miami will pave the way for more major carriers to follow suit.

Of the hundreds of passengers booked on the June 3 flight, more than three in four of them are returning nationals, many of whom were “inadvertently stranded” by border closures, Minister Nicholas said.

While returning citizens will face 14 days in quarantine at the Hawksbill resort, vacationers will stay at hotels which will be subject to inspection and certification by health chiefs before they can reopen.

Safety regulations for everyone from hotel workers to taxi drivers are now being finalised and are set to be presented to Cabinet next Wednesday.

Training will be given to Immigration and Customs officers and baggage handlers, as well as resort staff and bus and taxi drivers.

Minister Nicholas acknowledged there may be some concern among residents who fear an influx of visitors will herald a spike in infections.

But he said keeping the country shut would have a dire effect on its finances and its ability to feed its people.

“We are not cutting any corners or taking any chances,” he said. He told residents “don’t be alarmed by the alarmists” who claim the low percentage of the population to have been tested for Covid-19 is too small to be confident the country is not being put at risk by reopening to international travellers.

He spoke of a “new normal” with social distancing at the core of all interactions.

“We have to take these risks but be intelligent in our approach and remain continually vigilant,” the minister added.

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