Taiwan to Ease Dining Curbs But Keeps Mask Mandate, Ban on Bars

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Taiwan extended its soft lockdown while easing some of its Covid curbs as the government weighs the need to revive the domestic economy against risks posed by the global spread of the delta variant.

Sporting venues such as gyms and golf courses, along with national parks, scenic areas, museums and movie theaters, will be allowed to reopen from Tuesday, the Central Epidemic Command Center said in a statement. Restaurants, night markets and food courts can host socially distanced customers. But bars and swimming pools will stay closed, and people must continue to wear masks in public.

Taiwan to Ease Dining Curbs But Keeps Mask Mandate, Ban on Bars

There were just 18 newly confirmed domestic cases Thursday, the lowest number since May 13, according to Taiwan Centers for Disease Control data, as the soft lockdown measures succeeded in curbing the island’s worst outbreak of Covid-19.

“We have had fewer than 10 cases from unknown sources on four days over the past week, and about three cluster infections in the community,” Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said at Thursday’s briefing. “We are on the verge of being able to lower the Covid alert level. That’s why we need to be more careful and keep it at the current level, while easing some measures.”

Taiwan to Ease Dining Curbs But Keeps Mask Mandate, Ban on Bars

While easing certain measures, the government extended the so-called level 3 alert to July 26, with indoor family and social gatherings limited to five people and outdoor ones to 10. Under the curbs, which have been in place since May 19, schools and recreational facilities including bars have been shut, and restaurants were only allowed to serve takeout.

Heath authorities are remaining cautious after a handful of infections of the delta variant were reported, a strain that has complicated the U.K.’s reopening and forced some countries to reimpose curbs.

“We are not ready to downgrade the Covid-19 alert level yet” despite the local outbreak being under control, cabinet spokesperson Lo Ping-cheng said at briefing Thursday. But as the number of new cases has dropped from its peak in May, “it’s necessary to ease some controls to give industries like domestic consumption and services a breather.”

Domestic Pain

The restrictions are hurting retail spending and threatening jobs, even as the broader economy expanded 8.92% from a year earlier in the first quarter, the fastest pace in over a decade, on exports of semiconductors and other high-value products.

Restaurant and dining industry revenue slumped 19.1% in May from a year earlier, according to the economics ministry. Unemployment in Taiwan rose to its highest level in almost eight years in May, according to a government statement this week, which said there were 489,000 people out of work. Workers in food and beverage and hospitality sectors took the hardest hit.

Despite planning to ease rules, health authorities have emphasized the focus remains on containing the pandemic. Chen has said that rather than a piecemeal relaxation of curbs in different areas, “any changes would apply island-wide.”

Delta Danger

There are some local rules as well, with Taipei having only just reopened its world-famous night markets, though with takeout services only, along with fewer food stands, daily temperature checks, and compulsory registration of customers. Authorities want people to have normal lives with a minimum of controls even before Covid cases drop to zero, Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je said on Facebook earlier this month.

Taiwan confirmed the first locally transmitted delta cases in Pingtung County last month, after a woman and her grandson returned from Peru. The cluster totaled 17 as of Wednesday, with 13 confirmed to have the delta variant.

Taiwan to Ease Dining Curbs But Keeps Mask Mandate, Ban on Bars

Delta could be a problem for Taiwan, which has only inoculated about 12% of its population so far. The government aims to vaccinate 20% to 25% of the population by the end of July, President Tsai Ing-wen said this week.

With a population of 23.5 million, Taiwan has had roughly 15,000 cases and just over 700 deaths from Covid-19. At one point the island was close to the top of Bloomberg’s Covid Resilience Ranking of economies that have best handled the pandemic. It then slid as the virus got a foothold, plunging in the most recent ranking which included steps taken to reopen to the outside world.

“Let’s see whether we can downgrade the Covid alert level on July 26. That’s our real goal,” Chen said Thursday. “Let’s work together on that.”

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