Zimbabwe reopens bars, but only for vaccinated drinkers

Zimbabwe is allowing bars to reopen for the first time in more than a year, but only fully vaccinated people will be allowed to take a swig from inside the premises.

The southern African country closed pubs and nightclubs in March 2020 as part of restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 and had ignored pleas by owners to ease the restrictions to rescue their collapsing businesses.

"It is a huge relief," Faith Masiya, a director of FC Lounge in the eastern city of Mutare, said Wednesday. "Being closed for more than a year wasn’t a joke, it nearly killed our business. We had a lot of overheads to meet like salaries, trading license fees, water and electricity bills."

Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the decision to open pubs and nightclubs was out of "concern" that "the continued closure of licensed bars and nightclubs has caused not only a loss of income and unemployment but also resulted in the mushrooming of illegal outlets."

Before the decision, alcohol sales were limited to supermarkets, small retail liquor stores, restaurants and hotels serving customers. Pubs and nightclubs will still have to close by 7 p.m., the time all non-essential businesses must close under existing restrictions, said Mutsvangwa.

For drinkers, this is still better than before when they had to play hide and seek with the police while drinking at illegal taverns or open spaces turned into drinking spots. To stay afloat, many outlets would also surreptitiously sell booze to patrons through small windows and often paid bribes for the police to look the other way.

Zimbabwe is one of the few African countries to use vaccine mandates to push a hesitant population to get jabs. Only fully vaccinated people are permitted to go to places of worship and restaurants, for instance.

The government has also ordered all its workers to get vaccinated or lose their pay. Private sector employers are also telling workers to get the shots or lose their jobs.

Zimbabwe had recorded 131,335 infections, including 4,629 deaths, as of Oct. 5, according to government figures.

More than 15% of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are fully vaccinated — well above the overall African rate of 4% but far from the government’s goal of 60%.

Once struggling with vaccine shortages, Zimbabwe received more than 3 million doses of Chinese vaccines but the rate of people getting jabs has been falling since the end of August, as a devastating third wave showed signs of receding and complacency crept in. Officials administered just over 190,000 shots last week, compared to the peak figure of about 500,000 during the third week of August, according to official figures.