Coronavirus spike in Saudi Arabia, Gulf Arab countries prompts new lockdowns

In response, the kingdom has announced it will enforce a nationwide 24-hour curfew starting Saturday and continuing into next week during the Eid al-Fitr festival, which marks the end of Ramadan.

Kuwait has experienced an even sharper increase in cases, the most dramatic in its neighborhood, with confirmed infections up nearly sevenfold from since the first day of Ramadan to 16,800 on Tuesday.

Kuwait announced plans earlier this month to reimpose a complete lockdown from May 10 until May 30 in response to the spike. Walking for exercise is permitted for two hours every evening, but driving cars is not.

In Qatar, where case numbers have quadrupled to 37,000 cases, the government decreed new restrictions on Monday. It announced the closure of nonessential stores for 10 days and required that all citizens and residents download a cellphone tracking app to monitor those who come into contact with people who test positive for the virus. Noncompliance can be punished with three years in jail and a fine of up to $55,000.

The three other Gulf Arab countries — the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Bahrain — had also eased restrictions at the onset of Ramadan, an especially social month when pious and impious alike make social calls and hold dinner parties. All those countries have now seen the number of infections surge.

Public health officials believe many of the new cases are in the large communities of foreign workers, who represent a major part of the labor force in these six countries.

After Saudi Arabia recorded its first coronavirus case on March 2, the public health response was swift. The deeply religious kingdom barred Muslims from conducting daily prayers inside mosques, and pilgrimages to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina were halted. International flights were suspended, most major cities were placed under 24-hour lockdowns, most public places were closed and curfews were put in place.

In the third week of April, the kingdom was recording an average of around 1,200 cases a day.

That same week, King Salman issued a royal order shifting to “a partial curfew,” easing restrictions during Ramadan, which began April 24. Maintaining restrictions looked to be difficult during the month, when practicing Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise till sunset. People tend to crowd restaurants from dusk until daybreak.

Some provinces reopened. Construction companies and factories kicked back into gear, and shopping malls, the main hangout for Saudi residents, flung open their doors. The order urged people, however, to avoid gatherings of more than five people and imposed penalties on those who break the rule.

The number of reported infections immediately began to increase and have averaged 2,400 cases a day over the past seven days. Last week, the Saudi health ministry announced that four families were infected with the virus after they held a group iftar, the evening fast-breaking meal.

In the UAE, cases have more than doubled after it eased restrictions on the eve of Ramadan, reopening malls for those between 12 and 60 years old, allowing restaurants and cafes to operate at 30 percent capacity and permitting salons to resume “hair and nail services.” Public transportation was allowed to resume.

As life returned to the streets, cases surged. Local headlines reported the increased incidents of infection: “4 families in UAE infected after gathering for Taraweeh prayers”; “Man kisses grandmother in UAE, infects her with Covid-19.”

On Saturday, the government spokesman, Dr. Amna al-Dahhak al-Shamsi, urged families to avoid social visits. “We advise the community to avoid these habits and traditions and skip them this year,” she said, as reported by local newspaper Khaleej Times.

On Monday, the UAE announced the nighttime curfew would start two hours earlier, at 8 p.m. The measures came “in light of what we have observed during the holy month of Ramadan and the increase in the number of covid-19 infections resulting from some of the individuals in the community who were reckless and didn’t take into account the precautionary measures,” said Saif Juma al-Dhaheri of the Safety and Prevention Department.

Oman also relaxed some restrictions early on in Ramadan, allowing the reopening of nonessential businesses such as electronics stores and repair shops for cars and fishing boats, and it numbers more than tripled to approximately 5,700 cases by Tuesday.

On Monday, Oman announced a ban on all gatherings and activities during Eid al-Fitr, including livestock auctions and group prayers, and made required that face masks be worn in public.

Paul Schemm in Dubai contributed to this report.

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