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Shoppers return to high streets in Northern Ireland

All retailers have been given approval by Stormont to reopen following a reduction in the numbers of coronavirus infections and deaths.

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John Keenan, owner of Bogart Menswear in Belfast, using his measuring pod to measure a customer safely, after all shopping centres and retailers were given the green light to reopen in a significant relaxation of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

John Keenan, owner of Bogart Menswear in Belfast, using his measuring pod to measure a customer safely, after all shopping centres and retailers were given the green light to reopen in a significant relaxation of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

John Keenan, owner of Bogart Menswear in Belfast, using his measuring pod to measure a customer safely, after all shopping centres and retailers were given the green light to reopen in a significant relaxation of coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Northern Ireland (Brian Lawless/PA)

Shoppers are back on high streets in Northern Ireland as retailers returned to business after three months of lockdown.

All non-essential shops were able to reopen on Friday as the region became the first part of the UK to make the move.

The majority of shops in the Irish Republic are already back trading.

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A man cleans the window in the Calvin Klein store in the Victoria Square shopping complex in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

A man cleans the window in the Calvin Klein store in the Victoria Square shopping complex in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

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A man cleans the window in the Calvin Klein store in the Victoria Square shopping complex in Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

In Belfast, footfall was still considerably down on pre-pandemic levels on Friday morning, with bad weather likely putting off some people from heading back to the city centre.

Those customers who did venture out were met with a range of new hygiene and social distancing measures, both in and outside retail outlets.

There were queuing systems in place, screens at tills and several shop workers wore masks.

Shops pulled up their shutters as latest statistics showed the coronavirus death rate in Northern Ireland has fallen for a sixth week in a row.

There was one more Covid-19 death reported on Friday – only the second reported in the region by the Department of Health this week.

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The shutters go up at the Top Shop store in Belfast city centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

The shutters go up at the Top Shop store in Belfast city centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

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The shutters go up at the Top Shop store in Belfast city centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

Simon Hamilton, the chief executive of Belfast Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the restart of business.

“It’s great to hear shutters going up and staff coming in and people coming into Belfast city centre shopping again,” he told the PA news agency.

He said the retail industry is usually only closed for one day a year – Christmas Day – so three months without trade has been “hugely devastating” to the sector.

Mr Hamilton said it was a symbolically important day.

“It shows that there is some light at the end of the tunnel and a bit of hope that we are getting back to some semblance of normality,” he said.

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A man installs arrows on the floor to guide shoppers through the one-way system in the Victoria Square shopping centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

A man installs arrows on the floor to guide shoppers through the one-way system in the Victoria Square shopping centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

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A man installs arrows on the floor to guide shoppers through the one-way system in the Victoria Square shopping centre (Brian Lawless/PA)

John Keenan, managing director of Bogart Menswear in the city centre, measured up customers in a specially-made plastic pod, one of several hygiene steps he has installed to get the tills ringing again.

“We’re just looking for a few days’ good business to recoup some of the business we have lost,” he told PA.

“It’s been very hard. It’s been cruel on some people and we’re sorry to hear about all the deaths worldwide but hopefully we’re over the worst of it.

“We feel we’re going to get through it now.”

Jane Tedford, from Greenisland, Co Antrim, was one of the first shoppers back in the Victoria Square shopping complex.

She brought a flask of coffee to enjoy, knowing all the cafes remain closed.

“Ten weeks without shopping has been tough,” she said.

“I have missed buying things for my grandchildren, they are all in England and I normally send them T-shirts and things like that but I haven’t been able to because I don’t shop online.”

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Streets in Belfast remained relatively quiet on Friday as the rain put off some shoppers (Brian Lawless/PA)

Streets in Belfast remained relatively quiet on Friday as the rain put off some shoppers (Brian Lawless/PA)

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Streets in Belfast remained relatively quiet on Friday as the rain put off some shoppers (Brian Lawless/PA)

The reopening of the retail sector is one of a series of relaxations coming into force in Northern Ireland in the coming days.

From Saturday, people living alone will be able to spend time indoors with one other household without any social distancing restrictions.

That will enable grandparents living on their own to reunite and hug with their children and grandchildren once again.

Another coronavirus-linked death was reported in Northern Ireland on Friday, taking the total reported by the Department of Health to 539.

There were 16 new confirmed cases of the virus, bringing the total to 4,838 since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, statistics published by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (Nisra) on Friday morning show there were 19 deaths involving Covid-19 in the week to June 5 – continuing a six-week decreasing trend.

The Nisra figures give a fuller picture of Covid-19 deaths than the daily figures released by the Department of Health, which focus primarily on hospital deaths.

Nisra records show a death toll up to June 5 at 779, comparable with 537 reported by the Department of Health on the same day.

From last Saturday, there have been four days this week when the department did not report any further deaths, with a solitary death reported on each of the other two days, taking the current DoH total to 539.

PA