NI takes major step out of lockdown as shops, gyms, pubs and restaurants reopen
NORTHERN Ireland took a major step out of lockdown yesterday as shops, gyms, pubs, restaurants and cafes reopened after four months of closure.
Shoppers made their long-awaited return to the high street as retail units opened their doors, while some publicans, cafe owners and restaurateurs also able to trade outdoors.
Self-contained tourist accommodation, such as caravans and rented holiday homes, were also able to reopen after Stormont ministers agreed earlier this month that restrictions could be eased due to falling cases of coronavirus.
In Belfast, it was a hive of activity from early morning with long queues outside many stores, particularly at retail outlets such as Primark and at Castle Court, as hundreds of shoppers flocked to the city centre.
Simon Hamilton from the Belfast Chamber of Trade said it was "a hugely significant day for those businesses as they start to trade once again and is an important step back towards some semblance of normality in our city".
"When retail and hospitality businesses in Belfast and right across our region closed their doors on Christmas Eve and entered another lockdown, no one anticipated that they'd be shut for more than four months," he said.
"Belfast Chamber knows exactly what a difficult year it has been for many of our members.
"They are a unique mix of family-owned businesses, small independent shops and big brand namesthat all add up to make Belfast a brilliant destination.
"Those business and the people who work there deserve our support."
Gyms and swimming pools also reopened for individual activities yesterday, which was hailed as a "crucial step forward in rebuilding public health and wellbeing".
Belfast leisure operator GLL said it was vital that work gets underway to get people living active and healthy lifestyles again.
Gareth Kirk from GLL said: "This week marks the first time since December that citizens have had the ability to train in the gym or enjoy a swim, activities which we once took for granted.
"Given the huge demand for outdoor fitness classes in recent weeks, it is clear there is appetite among the public to get back to training.
"Just as the economy needs our attention, the physical health of our population must be prioritised if we are to avoid overwhelming our health trusts going forward."
Plans are in place to resume group fitness classes and swimming lessons in limited numbers on May 24, in line with indicative dates published by the Executive.
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey said it was "fantastic to see gyms and swimming pools open their doors again after such a challenging year".
"As we take these cautious steps out of restrictions, it is vital that leisure services step in to support and protect citizens and I am delighted to see so many operators doing so," she said.
"We recognise that restrictions on public life, including our ability to exercise and swim, have been extremely difficult. It is essential that we prioritise our health and wellbeing as we emerge from lockdown."