President Vladimir Putin on Monday declared an end to a partial economic shutdown across Russia due to the coronavirus pandemic, but he said that many restrictions will remain in place.
In a televised address to the nation, Putin said it will be up to regional governors in the far-flung country to determine what industrial plants could reopen starting Tuesday. He emphasized that it's essential to preserve jobs and keep the economy running, provided that workers strictly observe sanitary norms.
"The nationwide nonworking regime is coming to an end," a somber-looking Putin said. "Gradually, and very carefully, we are starting to ease the restrictions."
Putin also said regional authorities should consider allowing people to take walks and exercise wherever and whenever possible. He emphasized that all mass gatherings will remain prohibited and noted that it's essential for all Russians who are older than 65 or have chronic illnesses to continue staying home.
Since the outbreak began, Putin has given Russia's regions broad authority to determine their own coronavirus strategies, arguing that the situation in various localities differs widely. Kremlin critics have described that policy as an attempt to shift responsibility for the high number of infections and bruising economic damage from the outbreak.
Putin had ordered the economic shutdown in late March, although key industrial plants and some other sectors were allowed to continue operating. Most Russians have been ordered to stay home, except for shopping in nearby stores and pharmacies and visits to doctors.
Putin's decision to ease the restrictions comes as Russia registered a daily record of over 11,600 new infections in the last 24 hours, more than half of them in Moscow. That has brought the national total to more than 221,000 cases — the world's fourth-highest after the United States, Spain and Britain — including about 2,000 deaths.
Some observers say official statistics reflect just a fraction of the real numbers and pointed out that the actual death toll could be significantly higher. Unlike the United States, Italy and some other countries, the Russian totals don't include some of the deaths of those who tested positive for the coronavirus. Those with chronic illnesses who died are counted separately, even if they had the virus.
Doctors across Russia also have decried shortages of protective equipment and questionable infection control procedures at hospitals, and hundreds of medical workers have gotten infected.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said last week that up to 2.5% of the capital's 12.7 million residents, or about 300,000 people, could have been infected.
Sobyanin and other Russian officials have argued that the increased number of cases reflects wider testing and noted that nearly half of those infected have slight symptoms or none at all. They argued that the lockdown has helped avert a surge in the number of gravely ill and so far prevented hospitals from being overwhelmed.
Putin said that in recent weeks Russia has increased the capacity of hospitals treating coronavirus patients from 29,000 to 130,000 and has a sufficient reserve of ventilators.
He said the number of tests performed daily will increase from 170,000 to 300,000 by mid-May.
Regarding the lifting of restrictions, he argued that a "single pattern can't be applied, as in some regions certain actions may raise risks, while in others they may result in unwarranted restrictions."
"I repeat, lifting restrictions will not come fast," Putin added. "We mustn't allow a fallback, a new wave of epidemic and a rise in grave cases."
Moscow has taken the lead in allowing all of its industrial plants and construction sites to resume work starting Tuesday, and Putin said other regions might want to follow suit. Still closed in the capital are hairdressers, car dealers, stores other than food shops and most other service sector businesses. But in some of Russia's provinces, some of those businesses already have been allowed to reopen.
Putin emphasized that the restrictions must be lifted gradually to avoid triggering a new wave of contagion.
He said that he fully understands the public's desire to return to normal life, but he warned that caution is essential.
"I realize that patience is running out to observe the restrictions, but getting infected is much worth than that," he said.
A large part of his speech was devoted to outlining new measures to soften the devastating economic impact of the outbreak. Putin, who has faced criticism for failing to offer tangible help to the population as well as small and medium businesses hurt in the health crisis, announced a package of new support measures.
He said unemployment has doubled to 1.4 million, and said that the government will subsidize loans to encourage businesses to keep as many of their employees as possible. He also announced tax breaks for businesses and various additional payments to families with children and for other categories of the population.