Rebecca Black and James Ward, PA
The latest easing of the Covid-19 rules in the North has been hailed as an “enormous step forward” by the Economy Minister Diane Dodds.
Indoor hospitality and indoor visitor and cultural attractions may reopen from today, and people can meet inside private homes again, limited to six people from no more than two households.
Meanwhile, the limit on the size of outdoor gatherings has increased to 500, a move that was celebrated early on Monday by sea swimmers returning to the coast in large groups.
Non-essential travel is permitted to the rest of the UK, and a traffic light system is in place for foreign travel.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill wished all the businesses reopening today good luck in a video message posted on her Twitter account.
Today we take another huge step forward as more businesses reopen.
I want to wish businesses and workers the very best of luck.
Credit to the public and our health workers for getting us to this point of reopening.
Let’s continue to make progress and keep moving forward! pic.twitter.com/hgmdWsrJ2c
— Michelle O’Neill (@moneillsf) May 24, 2021
“Today we take another huge step forward as more businesses reopen. I want to wish businesses and workers the very best of luck,” she said.
“Credit to the public and our health workers for getting us to this point of reopening.
“Let’s continue to make progress and keep moving forward!”
Ms Dodds visited the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast early on Monday as indoor hospitality was able to resume for the first time this year.
Restaurants and pubs with outside space were able to reopen at the end of last month.
Ms Dodds said: “It’s brilliant to see things back open fully; we have already had hospitality open to a limited degree but obviously Northern Ireland isn’t particularly suited to outdoor dining, so it’s brilliant to see everyone back into restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, the really wide opening of hospitality and tourism.
“It’s also an enormously good day for families, where we can welcome people into our homes for the first time in many many months … and of course for sports and weddings and so on.
“It’s an enormous step forward for the Northern Ireland economy and we want to see that sustained, we want to see reopening safely and sustainably done so that we can continue to drive the economy forward.”
Mrs Dodds said she is looking forward to the next major reopenings which will be the general arts and entertainment sector.
“We want to see live venues open, we want to see theatres open, we want to see that aspect of our life return to normal as well,” she said.
Grand Central Hotel general manager Stephen Meldrum said over the last four weeks they have been preparing for the reopening to the public, having accommodated key workers during the pandemic.
“Each lockdown that we’ve gone through we have learned a little bit more, how to adapt our premises to be Covid compliant,” he said.
“We’re really hopeful that we will not have to lock down again.
“Bookings have been very strong, over the last four weeks we have seen a marginal increase in bookings, particularly at the weekends where people want to come to the city centre and enjoy various parts of hospitality.”
While it may be some time before the hotel can welcome international visitors back, Mr Meldrum said they understand there is huge interest in coming to Northern Ireland.
“Our sales team have been saying that the appetite for international travel is huge, particularly with the North American market who really want to get back to Northern Ireland and experience the great hospitality we have to offer,” he said.
All tourism accommodation will also be able to reopen from May 24.
A limit on the size of outdoor gatherings has increased to 500 – a figure that will also apply to the number of spectators able to attend sporting fixtures.
Indoor group exercise is allowed again, enabling indoor sports teams to resume training.
Indoor visitor and cultural attractions can also reopen from Monday, which includes museums, galleries, cinemas, indoor play areas, bowling alleys, amusement arcades, bingo halls and libraries.
With regard to indoor hospitality, people can sit at tables of six with no limit on households. It will be table service only.
Post-wedding and civil partnership receptions can also take place.
There will be no limit on the numbers at the top table, with a limit of 10 for other tables. Dancing will be restricted to a couple’s first dance.
Under relaxations agreed at Thursday’s Executive meeting, Stormont’s Stay Local message is also to be removed.
Schools can resume extra-curricular activities, indoor extra-curricular sports, outdoor inter-school sports and day educational visits.