MAKKAH: The Grand Mosque in Makkah operated at full capacity on Sunday, with worshippers praying shoulder to shoulder for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began early last year.

Workers removed floor markings that guide people to social distance in and around the Grand Mosque, which is built around the holy Kaaba.

“This is in line with the decision to ease precautionary measures and to allow pilgrims and visitors to the Grand Mosque at full capacity,” reported the official Saudi Press Agency.

Pictures and footage on Sunday morning showed people praying side by side, making straight rows of worshippers for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.

While social distancing measures were lifted, the authorities said visitors must be fully vaccinated against coronavirus and must continue to wear masks on mosque grounds.

The Kaaba remained cordoned off and out of reach.

Saudi Arabia announced in August it would begin accepting vaccinated foreigners wanting to perform Umra.

In July, only around 60,000 inoculated residents were allowed to take part in a vastly scaled down Haj.

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted both Muslim pilgrimages, which bring in a combined $12 billion annually to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government began issuing tourist visas for the first time in 2019, permitting foreigners to visit the country for purposes other than Haj or Umra.

Between September 2019 and March last year, it issued 400,000 of them — only for the pandemic to crush that momentum as borders were closed.

But the country is slowly opening up and has started welcoming vaccinated foreign tourists since Aug 1.

The government has also announced that fully-inoculated sports fans will be allowed to attend events at all stadiums and other sports facilities from Sunday.

It has also said that masks in most open spaces are no longer mandatory.

Saudi Arabia has registered over 547,000 coronavirus cases and 8,760 deaths so far.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2021

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