The Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, has returned to operating at full capacity, with worshippers praying shoulder-to-shoulder for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began.
On Sunday, floor markings that guide people to social distance in and around the Grand Mosque were removed.
“This is in line with the decision to ease precautionary measures and to allow pilgrims and visitors to the Grand Mosque at full capacity,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
Pictures and footage on Sunday morning showed people praying side by side in straight rows of worshippers, the formation revered in Muslim prayers, for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold last year.
While social distancing measures were lifted, authorities said visitors must be fully vaccinated against coronavirus and must continue to wear masks on mosque grounds.
The Kaaba, towards which Muslims around the world pray, remained cordoned off and out of reach.
According to the interior ministry, Saudi Arabia will ease COVID-19 curbs from October 17 in response to a sharp drop in daily infections and a considerable advancement of vaccination numbers.
The authorities also lifted curbs on fully vaccinated people at closed venues, gatherings, transportation, restaurants and cinemas.
Masks are no longer mandatory in open public places while still imposed at closed venues, it added.
Furthermore, fully-inoculated sports fans will from Sunday be allowed to attend events at all stadiums and other sports facilities, reported SPA.
In July, only about 60,000 inoculated citizens and residents were allowed to take part in a vastly scaled-down form of the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
The Hajj – held over 10 days of every year and required of physically and financially able Muslims at least once in their lifetime – normally draws millions of pilgrims from around the globe. The Umrah, a lesser pilgrimage, can be undertaken at any time of the year and also brings millions to the country.
Last August, Saudi Arabia announced it would begin accepting vaccinated foreigners wanting to make the Umrah.
The COVID-19 pandemic hugely disrupted both pilgrimages, usually key revenue earners for the kingdom, raking in a combined $12bn annually.
Saudi Arabia has reported more than 547,000 coronavirus cases and 8,760 deaths.