Egyptians who do not wear face masks in crowded public spaces will be fined under new measures to stem the spread of coronavirus, the government announced on Sunday.
Restaurants and cafes that don’t implement social distancing will also be fined and forced to close for a week.
The new measures were announced by a top-level government committee mandated to combat the virus, led by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli. They follow a dramatic surge in the number of Covid-19 cases over the past two weeks, despite stepped up pleas by authorities and media figures for Egyptians to adhere more diligently to preventive measures.
The daily rate of infections has exceeded 1,000 for three consecutive days, with 1,189 new infections on Saturday.
This is at least four times the average number of Covid-19 cases registered in early December, although it remains well below the record high of 1,700 registered in June.
But government officials said the actual number of daily infections could be at least 10 times those reported by the Health Ministry, which registers only the cases that go through the channels of the state healthcare system.
Many Egyptians who contract the virus seek treatment privately. Some die before they are diagnosed.
On Sunday, the committee combatting the coronavirus said Egyptians not wearing masks in crowded public spaces would be fined 50 pounds ($3.21) on the spot. Failure to pay would automatically mean the referral of offenders to prosecutors.
Restaurants, cafes and tea houses that exceed limitations on their capacity will face a 4,000-pound fine and a week-long closure. The same applies for venues hosting weddings or funerals, according to a government spokesman.
The new measures will go into force on January 3.
Facing the second wave of the pandemic, the government reopened most of the Covid-designated hospitals it had shut after the first wave of the pandemic waned in late summer.
As hospitals ramped up capacity, tragedy struck a private hospital in Cairo on Saturday when a fire thought to be caused by an electrical fault killed at least 10 patients and injured five others. The Misr Al Amal Hospital in El Obour, which was treating coronavirus patients, was evacuated and closed and patients were transferred to a public hospital in the capital, security officials said.
They said the fire broke out in the hospital’s ICU wing. Faulty wiring attached to an artificial breathing machine was suspected to have caused the fire, they added. Authorities are questioning the owner, manager and three members of the nursing staff in connection with the incident, they added.
As numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to climb, public figures have made a flurry of announcements about contracting the virus.
In recent days, the head of the state electoral commission has died of Covid-19 while the majority leader in parliament tested positive.
Youssra, one of Egypt’s best known actors, said she has the disease this weekend, and Liverpool and Egypt star striker Mohammed Salah fell victim to the virus last month when he missed two international fixtures with the Pharaohs and a Premier League match. Other celebrities who have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days include movie actors, hosts of television talk shows and footballers.
The rising rate of infections has prompted many television talk show hosts to berate Egyptians for taking the threat of infection lightly and to make emotional appeals to them to observe preventive measures such as social distancing and wearing masks in crowded public spaces more diligently.
“Why should I pay the price if you decided not to be careful? During the first wave of the pandemic I often said that I have confidence in the awareness of the people. I changed my mind,” popular TV host Amr Adeeb told viewers over the weekend.
“There is not a single restaurant or cafe in this country that is adhering to preventive measures. They are all packed to maximum capacity. I want to see the law enforced and strong measures going forward.”
The government has said it had no intention to order a repeat of the lockdown that was in force between March and July this year, fearing that could cause the economy to melt down.
Egypt has been taking delivery of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, which is taken twice 21 days apart, but authorities have yet to roll it out. They have said front-line health workers, the elderly and people suffering chronic diseases would take priority when vaccinations begin. The government is in negotiation with the vaccine’s Chinese makers to manufacture millions of doses domestically.
The latest Health Ministry figures, issued late on Saturday, show that there has been a total of 131,315 confirmed cases of Covid-19 since the pandemic began in February as well as 7,352 deaths.