South Africa opens as virus cases fall, allows liquor sales

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A man stocks shelves with bottles of wine at a Johannesburg liquor store in Johannesburg Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, as the country will lift its coronavirus-linked ban on the sale of alcohol and tobacco products on Tuesday. The purchase of alcohol and cigarettes was banned when the country went into a strict nationwide lockdown on 27 March to stem the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

JOHANNESBURG – South Africa, which imposed one of the world's strictest anti-coronavirus lockdowns five months ago, will significantly relax its restrictions Tuesday, including allowing the sales of liquor and cigarettes, as it appears the country has weathered its first peak of COVID-19 cases.

With numbers of cases and hospitalizations declining, the country will further loosen its regulations to permit the opening of bars, restaurants, gyms, places of worship and entertainment, all with distancing restrictions. Schools will reopen gradually from August 24, starting with grades 12 and 7 and a phased opening of other grades.

“This will come as a relief to all South Africans who have had to live under stringent restrictions for the last five months,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa Monday in his weekly letter to the nation.

“It is a sign of the progress we are making in reducing new infections and demand on our health facilities. It is also a very important development as we strive to restart our economy,” wrote Ramaphosa.

With more than 580,000 confirmed cases, South Africa has more than half of all reported cases in Africa. The 54 countries of the continent reported a total of more than 1.1 million cases on Monday, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa has recorded more than 11,800 deaths from COVID-19, while overall the continent has reported just over 25,600 deaths. The actual numbers of cases and deaths are estimated to be much higher, say health experts.

South Africa's new confirmed cases have dropped from an average of 12,000 per day at the peak in July to less than 5,000 per day last week, said Ramaphosa. South Africa confirmed 3,692 new cases in the last 24 hours. South Africa's recovery rate is 80%, he said.

“But it is too soon to celebrate," warned the president. "We are still very much in the middle of a deadly pandemic that has taken over 11,000 lives in South Africa alone ... there is always a chance of a resurgence of the disease.”