Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, is being turned into a giant open-air café with authorities allowing bars and restaurants to set up tables outside free of charge in order to respect social distancing rules as the country gradually eases lockdown restrictions.

The city’s mayor told Euronews the public had welcomed the initiative with “great enthusiasm”.

“After six or almost seven weeks in quarantine, everybody wants to socialise somehow and to socialise in a safe way,” Remigijus Šimašius said in a live interview on Euronews Now.

The Baltic state has recorded 46 deaths and 1,419 cases of the virus since the beginning of the outbreak, according to a tally kept by the Johns Hopkins University.

Shops, hairdressing and beauty parlours, libraries, museums and outdoor cafés were allowed to reopen across Lithuania on April 27 as the country started to lift some restrictions imposed to curtail the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But cafés and restaurants still have to adhere to strict physical distancing rules in order to reopen, with seating only allowed outdoors and clients placed at different tables to be at least two metres apart.

According to Mayor Šimašius, this would have excluded many businesses in the Unesco-listed Old Town, where narrow cobbled streets leave little space for outdoor seating. The city has therefore decided to open up its public spaces for cafés and restaurants to use.

“Plazas, squares, and streets – nearby cafés will be able to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season and thus conduct their activities during quarantine. Just open up, work, retain jobs and keep Vilnius alive,” Šimašius said last month.

He told Euronews the move also allowed people to enjoy a coffee or a meal outside with friends in “a very safe and also pleasant way”.

The measure has been welcomed by professionals with Evada Šiškauskienė, the head of the country’s Association of Hotels and Restaurants, saying it “came just in time”.

“This additional space will help them accommodate more visitors and bring life back to the city streets without violating security requirements,” she added.

According to the mayor’s office, around 200 cafés, bars and restaurants have applied to set up outdoor seating in public places and the city has said that more space could be made available if necessary.

The mayor also championed a system in which people can buy coupons to be used once the lockdown is lifted to support local businesses. The municipality itself bought coupons worth €25 for each of the city’s medical workers.

Watch our interview with the mayor of Vilnius in the video player above.

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