Temples and other places of worship in Maharashtra – closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic – will re-open soon, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray said Sunday, as he offered Diwali greetings to the state. He said SOPs to minimise transmission of the virus could be released after Diwali, which falls on November 14. Mr Thackeray also confirmed that schools were set to resume (for Classes 9 to 12) after Diwali, with safety protocols already in place for this.
The Chief Minister, who has been urged to sanction the re-opening of places of worship in the state, said he had held out because of the risk to senior citizens who visit them. Medical experts believe elderly people (those above 60) are at greater risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus.
“When will temples open? They will open soon. After Diwali we will create SOPs for this. Elderly people visit temples and they are at risk (of contracting Covid). Therefore overcrowding needs to be avoided… be it temples, masjids or any other place,” Mr Thackeray said.
The Chief Minister said that although the SOPs would be released later, the wearing of face masks while visiting places of worship in the state would be compulsory. He laid particular stress on that and warned people that those found without face masks would be fined.
“People are criticising me. I’m ready to face that. I’m cautious for senior citizens. If one Covid-positive person is without a mask, he can infect 400 others… these are doctor’s figures,” he said.
The re-opening of temples in the state had triggered an acerbic row between Mr Thackeray and Governor BS Koshyari early last month; the Governor, in a sarcasm-dense letter, asked the Chief Minister if he had “turned secular”.
The Chief Minister retorted that his Hindutva did not require a certificate of authenticity and that the government would only take a decision on this matter after “careful consideration”.
In today’s address Mr Thackeray addressed some of these considerations, including a potential second wave of infections triggered by a lack of social distancing during the festive season.
“You have all co-operated with us since Holi… and hence we are a bit stress-free. But I am a bit worried about the second wave. So far we have celebrated all festivals carefully and indoors, so I want to request you to celebrate Diwali this way as well,” he said.
The Chief Minister and a number of other leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, have all stressed on the need to minimise contact and maximise social distancing during the festivals, to ensure the virus does not spread.
Mr Thackeray also pointed to Delhi, which has seen a worrying surge in cases over the past 10 days coinciding with an increase in air pollution, to appeal against the bursting of firecrackers this Diwali.
“In Delhi we are seeing a peak. They say it is because of an increase in pollution… I haven’t been there but that’s what they say. So I would like to request you don’t burst crackers during Diwali,” he said.
The Chief Minister did not specifically ban this – as several other states, including Delhi – have done, but asked for “control” from the public. “During Diwali I’m not trying to put a ban on you. I am not trying to impose ’emergency’ but asking for collective co-operation. Let us not create pollution,” he said.
Maharashtra has logged over 17.14 lakh cases since the pandemic began, with over 45,000 of those cases resulting in deaths. However, the number of active cases in the state have dropped to marginally over one lakh, with nearly 15.7 lakh people having recovered from the infection.