People wait for the bus at a bus station in Havana, Cuba, July 3, 2020.(Xinhua/Zhu Wanjun)
by Yosley Carrero
HAVANA, July 3 (Xinhua) -- Commuters traveled to work in near-empty buses, the iconic ice cream parlor Coppelia reopened, and thousands of people flocked to beaches amid the excruciating heat as Havana started to ease three months of COVID-19 restrictions on Friday.
For Raineris Vega, a bus driver from the Guanabacoa bus station, the day began at 5:00 in the morning, transporting passengers from the outskirts of the city to Havana's entertainment district.
The 36-year-old bus driver said wearing a face mask while driving is something he could never imagine, but "strict fulfillment of social distancing measures as well as disinfecting and cleaning procedures" are fundamental to contain the spread of the virus during the post-pandemic period.
Vega, who has been driving buses in Havana's metropolitan area for nearly five years, said the coronavirus emergency has left some Cubans afraid of going outside after more than three months of sheltering at home.
"People will gradually get accustomed to the new normality and will come back to their daily routine. But for the moment, I recommend staying home as much as possible," he said.
Cuba on April 11 suspended public urban transportation operated by both state and private sectors as a precautionary measure to battle the COVID-19 outbreak across the country's 168 municipalities.
On the first day of lockdown de-escalation in Havana, the government allocated close to 540 Yutong buses to support the public transportation system in the capital city.
Vega also said that wearing face masks is compulsory for commuters and buses in Havana are running at full capacity because of restrictions on the number of standing passengers on board.
Earlier in the morning, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel urged people not to forget social responsibility in coronavirus emergency.
"Happy July 3rd when all of Cuba is in the post-COVID-19 recovery phase. May the joy not make us forget about responsibility. Today we've won a battle but we haven't yet won the war," he said on Twitter.
So far, 86 people have died from the virus in Cuba as eight new cases were reported on Friday, bringing the total to 2,361, more than half of whom contracted COVID-19 in Havana.
"We need to avoid massive public gatherings and more discipline from the population is required. The epidemiological risk still exists despite significant progress made in the fight against COVID-19," said Carlos Alberto Martinez, Havana's provincial director of public health.
Residents in the Cuban capital also got on buses to visit the country's largest ice cream parlor Coppelia, which reopened its doors to the public under new social distancing rules, including the two-meter distance between tables, mandatory use of face masks and disinfection of public surfaces.
"We need to maintain high hygiene standards to protect our clients and families. The virus is like an invisible bullet. You never know who pulls the trigger," said Daniela Suarez, 19, who works as a waitress at Coppelia.
Under the guidelines of the first phase of the Cuban post-pandemic recovery plan, swimming pools have been reopened at 30 percent capacity and beaches are available for locals again.
Among people who ventured outside, Caridad Cruz, a 35-year-old mother, took a bus to Guanabo beach looking for some fresh air and relaxation.
"I am enjoying the quietness of the sea with my family but keeping distant from other visitors. I had been waiting for this moment for more than three months. Enough is enough," she said on social media.
In Havana, many people wearing face masks gathered along the seafront to enjoy the sunset during the first day of the de-escalation, some hours before bus drivers like Raineris Vega finished their work.
"After coronavirus, no city will ever be exactly the same," Vega said.