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Coronavirus: Turkey reopens restaurants, gyms and Grand Bazaar as it eases measures

Inter-city travel curbs also lifted but restrictions on the movements of those aged over 65 and under 18 will continue
The coronavirus outbreak has claimed more than 4,500 lives in the country, and infected more than 160,000 (AFP)

Turkey reopened restaurants, cafes, parks and Istanbul's iconic 15th century Grand Bazaar market on Monday, as the country eased restrictions taken to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government has been gradually easing the restrictions for the past few weeks, as authorities say the outbreak is now under control.

The coronavirus outbreak has claimed more than 4,500 lives in the country, and infected more than 160,000.

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Restaurants, cafes, gyms and swimming pools, beaches, parks, libraries and museums were free to resume operations from Monday.

Millions of public sector employees also returned to work.

Daycare centres and kindergartens are reopening, but bars and nightclubs remained closed, and restrictions on the movements of those aged over 65 and under 18 will continue.

Domestic flights also resumed between a limited number of cities as an inter-city travel ban was lifted, AFP reported.

The national flag carrier Turkish Airlines said its first plane since the ban took off from Istanbul to the capital Ankara at 10am (07:00 GMT) on Monday. 

International flights have been suspended until 10 June.

Grand Bazaar reopening

Turkey has been shifting since May to a "new normal" by easing lockdown measures and opening shopping malls, barbershops and hair salons. 

Officials say the pandemic is now under control, but have repeatedly warned citizens to respect social distancing rules and wear masks outside.

The Grand Bazaar, an Istanbul landmark situated on the historic peninsula also home to tourist sites such as  the Hagia Sophia museum and the Blue Mosque, shut down on 23 March.

It has been the longest closure in the market's 559-year history that did not involve fires or earthquakes. 

The bazaar reopened under strict rules laid out by the health ministry that include the mandatory use of masks and a limit on the number of customers allowed into shops.

"You see some of the stores have premises with 15-square-metre areas and a maximum of two shoppers will be allowed inside," Fatih Kurtulmus, head of the Grand Bazaar's board, told AFP last month.

The bazaar, which was built in 1455 just two years after the Ottomans seized Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, is home to almost 3,000 shops where more than 30,000 people work.

Hagia Sophia protests

A limited number of mosques reopened on Friday for mass prayers.

The resumption of communal worship was regulated by strict guidelines to minimize infection risks, limited to certain mosques and outdoor public spaces, the religious affairs directorate (Diyanet) said.

Clerics on Friday recited prayers in Hagia Sophia, to celebrate the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest in 1453. 

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After the conquest, it was converted into a mosque before being turned into a museum during the rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, in the 1930s.

But there have been hints, including from Erdogan, about reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. 

Last year, Erdogan himself mooted the possibility of turning Hagia Sofia museum into a mosque.

Such calls have sparked anger among Christians and raised tensions with neighbouring Greece. 

After Friday prayers at the Blue Mosque, a small group of worshippers shouted: "Let the chains break and let Hagia Sophia open," an AFP photographer reported. 

The group was later dispersed by the police who stopped them from protesting near Hagia Sophia that sits immediately opposite the Blue Mosque.

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