Iraqis poured into streets and commercial areas on Sunday as authorities relaxed coronavirus restrictions despite calls to reconsider the move amid surging cases and fatalities.
The decision, approved on Thursday by Iraq’s Higher Committee for Health and Public Safety, seeks to ease growing pressure on the economy and restore some sense of normality.
Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in Iraq and shows no signs of abating despite orders to stay at home and other protective measures imposed since mid-March.
The lockdown has harmed the country’s private sector, fuelling anti-government sentiment.
The committee said easing restrictions was aimed at “revitalising the commercial activities in the country and to ease the burden on the workers".
The daily curfew has been shortened to run from 9pm to 5am, while malls have been allowed to reopen on the condition that they strictly apply precautions to prevent the spread of infection.
Commercial movement at two border crossings with Iran and one with Kuwait also resumed, while airports will reopen on July 23.
Restaurants, cafes, children's play areas, places of worship, hairdressers, preschools and private clinics are not allowed to open yet.
Authorities have maintained a round-the-clock curfew on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, which will be reviewed after the Eid Al Adha holiday at the end of the month.
Coronavirus in the Middle East
At Baghdad Mall in the west of the capital, sanitisation booths were set up at the entrances and employees posted to ensure shoppers wore face masks and gloves.
Stands for hand sanitisers were also placed near by.
Most shops inside the mall also had sanitisers and a few put social distancing stickers on the floor.
But shoppers, some wearing face shields along with their masks, were not practising social distancing as they browsed among clothes racks or crowded at cashiers.
Some said reopening malls had brought joy back into their lives.
“I have not been out for months now,” said Sara Youssif, 25, who was wearing a face mask and gloves as she put down her shopping bags to look for a screen protector and phone cover at a stand for mobile accessories.
“I spent about 400,000 dinars [Dh1,231] on clothing and cosmetics and there are still more things to buy.
“I have been saying from the very beginning that we need to coexist with the virus because it is here to stay.
“And that the only solution is to protect ourselves. There must be compliance.”
But critics say it is still too early to return to normality.
On Friday, the Iraqi Medical Association said easing restrictions would harm efforts to contain the disease as “infections are still at high levels”.
“The committee’s decision didn’t take into consideration any official statistics or solid scientific research,” it said.
The association said the government's preventive measures were weak.
“It should have reviewed preventive measures at health institutions and supplied protection equipment to the medical staff instead of increasing crowds in public areas,” the medical group said.
On Sunday, Iraq announced 2,310 new infections and 90 deaths in the previous 24 hours.
That raised the total confirmed cases to 92,530 cases, and deaths to 3,781.
But for Ayoob Adnan Hamza, it was a relief to see customers in his shop again.
“Our business is badly hit by the outbreak. We didn’t expect to close down all this time,” said Mr Hamza, 24, outlet manager for a brand of women's handbags and shoes.
He estimated lost revenue at about $80,000 since the closing in mid-March.
The coronavirus has affected two peak times for his business, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha.
In the eerily quiet section for restaurants and cafes, a group of youths had gathered. They were in the mall to take photographs.
“The place here is perfect for us, it’s quiet with nice decoration,” said Duaa Al Mukhtar who was posing for a photo for her shopping page on Instagram that features women's clothing.