Spurt in COVID-19 cases as Taj Mahal reopens after 188 days

Taj Mahal

Agra: After a long gap of closure for 188 days due to the pandemic, the 17th-century monument of love, the Taj Mahal, reopened to visitors on Monday, even as a spurt of 144 new COVID-19 cases raised the alarm level of the district administration.

The white marble tomb in the city of Agra was opened to the public at sunrise, and a Chinese national and a visitor from Delhi were among the first to enter.

The ASI officials along with the CISF security personnel ensured strict compliance with the guidelines relating to social distancing, mask-wearing, and sanitisation of the premises. The online ticket sale has ensured proper screening of the visitors, a guide said.

Daily visitor numbers have been capped at 5,000, versus an average of 20,000 before the pandemic. Tickets are only being sold online, with fewer than 300 bought on the first day.

Visitors will have their temperatures taken and must adhere to advice to keep a safe distance from each other.

Aditya Diksha, one of the early visitors at the Taj, said he and his friends drove 12 hours from central India and stopped in Agra on their way to the mountains in the north.

"It is the first time in six months we have been out, so it feels good," he said.

Workers at the Taj were sanitising the handrails while paramilitary police shouted at tourists not to touch any of the surfaces.

"We are following all COVID-19 protocols," said Vasant Swarnkar, superintendent of the Archaeological Survey of India, which oversees the Taj among other monuments.

The local tourism industry leaders were upbeat and were hoping for a revival of the sector in the coming months.

District Magistrate P. N. Singh said all precautions have been taken and a strict watch would be kept.

So far the response to advance hotel bookings was not so encouraging, but as the momentum picked up and if all went without hassles, the number of visitors to Agra could increase. Hoteliers were also hopeful that some new flights connecting Agra with major cities would bring tourists to the Mughal Metro, as winter starts early November.

Tourism contributed about $240 billion, or 9.2% of India's gross domestic product in 2018, employing more than 42 million people, World Travel and Tourism Council data show.

Private medical doctors, however, expressed reservations about the wisdom of allowing outsiders when the pandemic had yet to peak.

COVID cases spike in Agra

In the past 24 hours, 144 new cases were detected to bring the total tally to 4,850. So far 3,852 have recovered. The death toll is 118 and the number of active patients is 880.

The district authorities have permitted nine NABH (National Accreditation Board for Hospitals) approved hospitals in the private sector to admit the COVID patients, as experts fear there could be a need for another 1,000 beds in the coming days. The specially designed COVID coaches of the Indian railways were lying in the yards without use. A railway official said the 26 isolation coaches are ready and if the administration wants these can be used.

Meanwhile, oxygen supply has been largely restored after a hue and cry was raised in the last couple of days.

The district health officials said the patients have been advised to collect their test reports online through an app.

The overall picture would be clearer after the findings of the nationwide Sero-survey are released by the ICMR in a few days, specialists said in Agra.

Doctors at the S. N.Medical College said, "With more opening and increased level of social interaction, people had to be very careful in observing the guidelines."

An official indicated that the temples and schools will not open before October 1.

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