South Africa will begin lifting Covid-19 restrictions on Wednesday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech on Tuesday that marked the beginning of what he called a “new era” in the country’s fight against the pandemic.
Masks are no longer mandatory outdoors in South Africa, but remain mandatory in public indoor spaces, including shops, offices and public transport.
Indoor and outdoor locations that require proof of vaccination or a negative test not older than 72 hours are allowed to fill up to 50 percent of their capacity. Locations without such requirements must continue to meet the existing limits of 1,000 people indoors and 2,000 people outdoors.
The maximum capacity at funerals will double, from 100 to 200 attendees. Meetings after the funeral remain prohibited.
Omicron was first identified in Botswana and South Africa in late November. It quickly became dominant in South Africa, sending the number of cases skyrocketing to a pandemic peak of an average of more than 23,000 cases per day by mid-December. The country stated that it passed that peak by early January, and other countries have since followed a similar pattern of rapidly rising and falling waves.
The national disaster in South Africa will not be lifted until April 16, when the period for the public to comment on new health regulations will close, Mr Ramaphosa said.
Although the pandemic is not over yet, Mr Ramaphosa said, South Africans can return “as far as possible” to the life they led before the pandemic and enjoy themselves in stadiums, concerts and theatres. According to Our World in Data, only 30 percent of the country’s population has been fully vaccinated, and any further relaxation of pandemic regulations would require more South Africans to be vaccinated, Mr Ramaphosa said.
In his speech, Mr Ramaphosa noted that the South African government had taken into account the experience of countries where ‘complete’ lifting of restrictions led to an increase in cases and deaths. Yet his announcement came the same day a senior World Health Organization official said cases were rising in Europe because countries had eased restrictions too quickly.