HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is allowing a staggered opening from Friday of restaurants, shopping centres and beaches in provinces that have lowered coronavirus cases even as it battles some of the highest nationwide rates of infection per capita worldwide.
The easing of lockdown restrictions coincides with preparations by the cash-strapped Caribbean island nation for its tourist high season, which it hopes will bring much-needed dollars to palliate a dire economic crisis.
The government has already announced it will allow more flights and accept COVID-19 vaccination certificates for inbound travelers in lieu of a PCR test from November.
"In recent days we have determined the conditions are there to gradually reopen many of these in-person services," said Interior Commerce Minister Betsy Diaz.
Health officials said coronavirus infections started falling in September from their peak over the summer months as they raced to vaccinate more than 90% of the population by mid November with their home-grown COVID-19 vaccines.
They have already vaccinated 86.5 % of the 2.2 million inhabitants in Havana, where they started the campaign.
Authorities have selected 533 businesses that may now open to in-person service in the capital including 315 restaurants. Until now eateries had only been allowed to do delivery.
Earlier this month Cuba asked the World Health Organization to start the evaluation process toward officially recognizing its vaccines, which would be a major recognition given data from late phase trials has not yet been published in peer reviewed journals.
Yet in the near term, the virus is overwhelming healthcare facilities in provinces that started their vaccination campaigns after Havana, despite the return of hundreds of doctors from missions abroad to reinforce staffing.
On top of the pandemic-induced crisis, Cuba is dealing with shortages of medicines in an economy struggling with a decline in aid from ally Venezuela, a tightening of decades-old U.S. sanctions and the reduction of tourism revenue.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Sarah Marsh; editing by Grant McCool)