Belfast City Council health and safety staff have been given powers of enforcement to clamp down on Covid-19 offenders, this newspaper can reveal.
Their new authority comes into effect immediately and coincides with the easing of Stormont's restrictions.
It is likely to be a baptism of fire for the 'compliance officers', with city stores sure to be thronged with people doing their Christmas shopping.
A council spokesperson confirmed the move, saying that its primary aim was to encourage businesses to comply with the regulations and pointing out that "officers will use the full range of enforcement powers available to them", including fines of up to £10,000 for retailers falling foul of the Covid rules.
Other councils in Northern Ireland are likely to follow suit.
The council's health and safety officers previously worked in an advisory capacity only, pointing out where retailers had erred with regard to, for instance, face coverings and social distancing.
Now, wearing high-visibility jackets on the streets, the 'Covid police' have been authorised to intervene when they become aware of any flouting of the existing restrictions.
The revelation came as the Department of Health said a further 14 people had died with Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, while an additional 441 tested had positive for the virus.
It is understood the officers, who should not be confused with the non-enforcement 'Covid ambassadors' announced by the Executive on Thursday, will have the power to serve fixed penalty notices, similar to those which can be imposed for offences relating to dog fouling, litter, graffiti and fly posting.
These fines provide the offender with the option to settle an offence without the need to go through the courts.
Belfast City Council said staff had been "working with businesses and providing guidance to individual retailers" in recent months.
"Officers from our compliance team will also visit individual businesses and investigate complaints to ensure compliance with the coronavirus regulations," a spokesperson added.
"We have planned a number of joint visits with the PSNI to hospitality and retail businesses over the weekend.
"Our primary aim is to encourage businesses to comply with the regulations, but if necessary, and in the interests of public health and safety, council officers will use the full range of enforcement powers available."
The Covid-19 ambassadors, meanwhile, will provide advice on queuing and the location of hand sanitisers.
They will also be visible on the city's streets.
The development comes as doctors fear a major spike in coronavirus infections in the run up-to Christmas.
Dr Alan Stout, BMA Northern Ireland committee chair, told this newspaper that Northern Ireland "could be walking into a perfect storm" as retail, hospitality and close-contact services, including hairdressers, reopen.
"We're reopening from quite a high level of infections, so there is still very significant risk there," he explained.
Health Minister Robin Swann warned people not to let their discipline slip now that the restrictions have ended.
Dr Stout said he shared Mr Swann's concerns that Northern Ireland had not seen the worst of this virus.
"The spread is all about contacts," he added.
"Anything we do to increase the number of contacts we have increases the spread, increases the number of infections, increases the number of hospitalisations and so on.
"Coming up to Christmas is a difficult time. People want to go to shops and restaurants and it's all too easy for people to let their guard down. That's going to put us in a really tough position."
Retail NI boss Glyn Roberts said he expected a surge of shoppers to hit the streets on Friday.
"It will be a challenging time for retailers, but we want shoppers to stay safe and obey all the regulations," he added.
Belfast Lord Mayor Alderman Frank McCoubrey welcomed the reopening of retail.
"This is a crucial period for retailers, who've had such a challenging year due to the ongoing pandemic, so it's positive to see retail reopen in the run-up to Christmas," he said, stressing that everyone should follow the public health advice.
"The council and our city partners have been working hard to ensure that people can come into the city centre and shop safely."
Belfast tailor Chris Suitor, owner of Suitor Bros in the city centre, said he was bracing for a "mental" fortnight.
"Our clients are looking forward to getting back into the shop," he explained.
"We expect to be extremely busy. As a business, we need trade to be brisk in the run-up to Christmas. As a sector, retail needs a bumper fortnight now more than ever."