Movie theatres will open, religious gatherings will be allowed with restrictions, and students in some parts of the country will be let back into classrooms, as the latest phase of reopening the country begins on Thursday, close to seven months after a national lockdown was first imposed as the coronavirus pandemic swept across the world.
The latest activities to be “unlocked” pose some of the biggest infection risks: the virus can spread easily in closed spaces such as cinema halls, quickly among crowds typical at religious festivals, and potentially unchecked in children who can then pass it on to more vulnerable people at home.
The risks are counterweighed by recent infection trends that suggest India may be over its first outbreak peak, and economic indicators that make for a case to allow more normalcy to return in order to stem the widespread erosion of earnings.
The measures also come at a time when the country heads into winter, conditions in which the Sars-Cov-2 virus is projected to last longer and a Covid-19 infection feared to be worse due to increased pollution.
“The next two-and-a-half months are going to be very crucial for us in our fight against corona because of the winter season and the festival season. It becomes responsibility of every citizen to not let our guard down and follow Covid appropriate behaviour to curb spread of the infection,” Union health minister Harsh Vardhan said at a meeting with central government hospitals on Wednesday.
A review of state-wise protocols for schools, cinema halls and festival celebrations shows that most regions are playing it safe. Only around five states have decided to open up schools, and almost all of them will allow only students from senior classes to attend. Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, which have the highest number of cases, have decided to keep them shut.
More states, however, have chosen to open movie theatres. The Union home ministry, which defines a base level of restrictions that must be followed, said on September 30 that these businesses can admit only 50% of their capacity, and must ensure space is left between each guest.
With few new titles being released, most cinema halls are choosing to screen previously released titles as they also determine the risk appetite among their customers. “We’ve picked some old blockbusters like Simmba, Chhichhore, Malang, Section 375 depending which movie fits best in which pocket and was preferred in that place. So, cinemas in Delhi would show a different film than a cinema in Gurugram or Kanpur,” said Kunal Sawhney, senior vice president of operations, Carnival Cinemas.
“We just want customers to come and see that cinema is safe, we’re only targeting to win back their confidence in this particular week,” he added.
In Delhi, representatives of cinema halls — which include PVR, M2K Cinemas and INOX — told chief minister Arvind Kejriwal that in order to ensure guidelines are followed, they will sanitise food counters, prohibit patrons from consuming food inside auditoriums, leave a seat empty between two viewers — even if they arrive as a group — and ask customers to download the Aarogya Setu mobile application.
As on Wednesday, India has recorded 7,304,804 cases and 111,314 deaths. Data from across the country showed there were 67,819new cases, significantly lower than the roughly 93,000 cases being seen on average in mid-September when the outbreak was at its peak.
Experts reiterated that risks have not diminished and people must not let their guard down. “Coming months are going to be crucial as for respiratory viruses, pollution, drop in temperature and congregation makes for a killer combination that helps these microbes thrive. Sars-Cov-2 may be a new virus but based on evidence available globally on the behaviour of respiratory viruses in winters, we should well be prepared for a surge in cases,” said Dr GC Khilnani, former head, pulmonology department, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi.
“Maintaining physical distancing will be difficult in coming weeks when there is festive season rush in markets, which could impact containment measures. A vaccine will take time, so the only effective option is to observe Covid-appropriate behaviour,” he added.
Paediatricians said opening schools is not a good idea since closed spaces such as classrooms pose a significant risk. “The problem is not opening of schools, the real challenge will be to ensure students follow Covid-19 appropriate behaviour, especially when you see adults around taking preventive measures too casually,” said JS Bhasin, head, paediatrics department, BLK Hospital, Delhi.
“Kids themselves may not be very sick but once they come back home they might pass it on to the more vulnerable population such as their grandparents. It’s definitely going to lead to a spurt in cases,” Bhasin added.
The latest unlocking exercise is the fifth in a series of such decisions since June 1 but with a changed nomenclature (earlier, the reopening process was called “Unlock”). For large gatherings, the home ministry’s September 30 announcement set a limit of 200 people if an event is held indoors, provided that this gathering does not exceed 50% of the established capacity of the venue.
For outdoor events, the government did not set a limit but specified that people need to follow the social distancing practice of keeping 6 feet apart, cover their faces, use hand sanitisers and are screened for fever.
Over the next month, the country will also witness its first elections since the pandemic broke out.
Polls will be held in Bihar for all 243 assembly constituencies and bypolls will be held for 59 seats in 11 states. Results of the Bihar assembly elections and the bypolls will be declared on November 10. On October 8, the Union home ministry allowed election meetings to be held in these 12 states, putting the responsibility on political parties to ensure people observe precautions such as distancing and covering their faces in order to minimise the risk of infections.
Regular international flights remain banned, as one of the most prominent pre-Covid activity that is yet to be restored fully. For domestic flights, 60% capacity has been currently allowed by the government.