DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Dubai's tourism department Thursday announced an immediate halt to all live entertainment at hotels and restaurants, a day after suspending non-urgent surgeries at hospitals to deal with an influx of COVID-19 patients.
Both decisions come after months of Dubai promoting itself as the ideal pandemic-friendly vacation spot while coronavirus infections skyrocketed. Now, the sheikhdom is showing signs of strain.
Even as cases surged to previously unseen heights in the United Arab Emirates, the city-state of Dubai had sought to be a glimmering desert oasis for tourists fleeing tough lockdowns back home. Since reopening in the spring, the commercial hub has resisted more restrictions that would pummel its economy, built largely on aviation, hospitality and retail.
Beyond the ubiquitous masks outdoors, a sense of pre-pandemic normalcy has prevailed in the city. Bands, dancers and DJs had been performing in bars and clubs for socially-distanced crowds. Hotel occupancy rates surged over 70% in December, nearing 2019 holiday levels. The city's airport welcomed over 70,000 travelers for New Year's weekend alone.
Soon countries like the United Kingdom and Israel that had sent droves to Dubai over the winter holidays closed their travel corridors, citing alarm over the UAE's spike in infections. As late as Tuesday, the sheikhdom's government-run media office was vigorously insisting that things were under control. In a statement, the emirate said it "continues to maintain the highest levels of protection against the pandemic and compliance with preventive measures."
But on Thursday, Dubai's tourism department announced it had "observed, through field inspection, an increase in the number of violations during entertainment activities."
Although bars and restaurants would remain open for the time being, Dubai's media office said it would pause the issuance of new entertainment permits to venues effective immediately to ensure "public health and safety." The office said it issued more than 200 violations for "non-compliance" with COVID-19 guidelines and shuttered 20 establishments over the last few weeks.
In a circular sent to business partners, Dubai's tourism department said the ban only applies to live bands at restaurants, bars and beach clubs and that private events and wedding parties, currently capped at 200 people, could continue as normal. The statement said that failure to comply with health measures would result in "serious actions," without elaborating. It gave no time frame for the resumption of entertainment activities.
The pandemic shows no signs of abating. The UAE on Thursday shattered its infection record for the 10th consecutive day, with 3,529 cases reported. The country does not release location data for infections, making it difficult to determine where in the federation of seven sheikhdoms has been hardest hit by the virus.
With its health centers well-staffed and 90% of its population comprised of relatively young and healthy expatriates, the UAE has so far avoided the chaotic scenes of overwhelmed hospitals seen elsewhere. The country has recorded over 267,000 infections and 766 deaths.
The UAE has rolled out the second-fastest coronavirus vaccination campaign in the world, trailing only Israel. The country, which offers the vaccine made by Chinese state-backed firm Sinopharm to everyone over the age of 16, says it seeks to vaccinate more than half the population of 9 million by the end of March.
On Thursday the UAE also approved Russia's Sputnik V vaccine for emergency use, citing "results of its effectiveness," without elaborating. Other countries have been reluctant to approve the Chinese and Russian vaccines, saying their efficacy announcements lack reliable data and other critical details.
Dubai also offers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has been approved by Western regulators with an efficacy rate of about 95%. But given supply constraints, it's available only to residents over 60 and those with chronic health conditions.
Dozens of residents hoping to get the Pfizer-BioNtech jab descended on Dubai's World Trade Center on Thursday after a state-linked newspaper published a report saying the center accepted walk-ins regardless of age and other priority criteria. Some appeared ready to wait for hours even as Emirati health authorities in traditional dress tried to get them to leave.