Thousands of people have gone shopping or enjoyed drinks at pubs as the Covid-19 lockdown eased in Northern Ireland.
There were big queues outside some shops, bars and cafes on Friday with many outlets reopening after the four-month winter shutdown.
Gyms and swimming pools were also allowed to open again.
Some retailers reported busy trade, with one County Down shopping centre manager saying: “It feels a bit like Christmas Day… there’s a good vibe.”
Stormont ministers agreed this month that restrictions could be eased on Friday due to falling numbers of coronavirus cases.
Hospitality businesses must only operate outdoors, with table service and limited numbers at each table.
Earlier closing times for takeaway businesses and off-licences, imposed at the onset of the lockdown in December, have been removed.
Caravans and self-contained tourist accommodation can also reopen.
image captionThere were big queues outside shops in Londonderry from early on Friday morning
Restrictions on meeting up outside have also been slightly eased, with 15 people from three households allowed to meet in a private garden.
Long queues formed outside some shops on Friday, sparking some concerns about social distancing and people’s adherence to Covid-19 regulations.
In Londonderry a line of people had gathered outside the Primark shop from 06:30 BST.
Dr Gerry Waldron from the Public Health Agency (PHA) said the “virus is still out there and is still infecting people”.
“We just want to put a reminder out to people – things are easing off, things are getting better but please keep to all the basic messages,” he said.
His advice for shoppers was to remember social distancing and wear face coverings to help keep themselves and each other safe.
‘Sugar rush of spending’
Roger Pollen of the trade body the Federation of Small Businesses said the reopening of much of the economy on Friday was “a baby-step forward but for many it seems like a huge step”.
image captionBuskers and shoppers took to the streets of towns and cities again
“I think we’re going to see a bit of a sugar rush in spending now as people get out and getting a chance to do it,” he said.
“The safety aspect has been well observed – you look round and everyone is wearing their face mask, there’s no controversy around that.”
Chris Nelmes, the manager of the Boulevard shopping centre in Banbridge, County Down, said there had been an “encouraging start” to business.
“There’s been queues since well before the shops have opened,” he said.
“”It feels a bit like Christmas Day today and with it being a bank holiday weekend it will be very, very busy.”
‘Customers are confident’
For retail staff there was an “excitement, a buzz to get back into store, back into what we do best”, said shop manager Laura Mawhinney.
“It definitely feels busier than our previous reopening last June,” she said.
image captionOutdoor hospitality venues were popular across Northern Ireland
“This year customers have a level of expectation – they’re a lot more confident, they know what the rules are this time, they know what to expect in their shopping.
“The mood just seems great, I think everyone’s just excited.”
There was almost a party atmosphere in the centre of Belfast on Friday.
The sun was shining, the buskers were back and people were keen to shop.
Primark, which famously doesn’t sell online, was particularly busy and its queues were well marshalled.
“People are glad to get out – it’s been a long four months,” one of those Primark shoppers told me.
In Portrush, County Antrim, Camilla Long from the Causeway Chamber of Commerce described an “amazing sense of optimism” in the town.
“I was walking around here last night and there were trucks delivering, windows being washed, doors open for the first time in 18 weeks,” she said.
image captionSome retailers reported brisk trade as a result of pent-up demand
“People [were] getting ready to do what we do best in the north coast and that’s to welcome visitors back.”
But she also said it was important to acknowledge people whose businesses had collapsed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“For each and every business owner and family who relies on that business, that is a tragedy.”
‘Keen to exercise’
Adrian Walker of GLL, which runs Belfast City Council’s gyms and leisure centres, said that he expected May to be a busy month.
“People are really keen to get back and get back into some form of exercise,” he said.
The “trickle-flow programme” the leisure centres had implemented meant there was reduced capacity at gyms, he said, but that allowed people more time to use different machines.
image captionTreadmills were rolling and iron was pumped as gyms reopened on Friday
Health Minister Robin Swann has warned the hospitality industry not to seek or promote cross-border business while there is a big difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the proportion of people who have received a Covid-19 vaccine.
On Thursday the Irish government announced a phased relaxation of its highest level of Covid-19 lockdown rules over the coming weeks and months.
From 10 May, people can travel outside their county and close contact services and click-and-collect retail can resume.
The Stormont executive’s advice remains that people in Northern Ireland should “stay local”.
Ministers have given an indicative date of 24 May for hospitality businesses in Northern Ireland to be allowed to resume trading indoors but that will have to be assessed on 13 May, the next review of the coronavirus restrictions.
The executive has also earmarked 24 May for the reopening of tourist accommodation such as hotels and bed-and-breakfasts.
Outdoor hospitality confusion
There had been some confusion about the implementation of Covid-19 regulations for outdoor hospitality venues in the run-up to Friday.
Some venues have been told they could not reopen because their outdoor seating areas did not adhere to regulations from the executive.
image captionVisitors to Belfast Zoo were given a warm welcome as it opened its gates again
On Thursday the industry body Hospitality Ulster said the majority of hospitality businesses had failed last-minute inspections.
The Department of Health had said the general rule of thumb was that outdoor premises should not be more than 50% enclosed.
The legislation states that a premises is substantially enclosed if it has a ceiling or roof but there is “an opening in the walls”.
Responsibility for enforcing the regulations on outdoor areas rests with the 11 councils in Northern Ireland.
Sean McLaughlin, who owns a fish and chip restaurant in Portrush, was frustrated that the outdoor area he had invested in was deemed unsuitable on Thursday.
image captionCouncil officials have inspected outdoor hospitality areas for compliance with Covid-19 rules
He was told that its because its partial coverage did not comply with the rules.
“There’s more than adequate ventilation to sit there as one family but you can go to big stores today and brush hands with people and there’s nothing,” he said.
“We’ve put this in and we’re left stuck with it.
“Restaurateurs who are using the exact same space that they used last year are now being told they can’t use it – it’s nonsensical.”
‘Spend thousands on preparations’
Many bars that are only licensed to sell alcohol indoors but had thought that if they provided a safe outdoor area they would be permitted to open.
image captionBridie Gormley says the reopening of her pub has had to be put back
This week three bars in Belleek, County Fermanagh, which had planned to reopen were contacted by the police who said they would not be allowed to trade.
Bridie Gormley, the owner of Black Cat Cove, said it was another blow for a “small rural town that has suffered terribly during Covid”.
“On Monday we found out that our outdoor area is not licensed for outdoor serving,” she said.
“We had spent thousands of pounds on outdoor furniture, we bought in our stock and we had given our staff a starting date.
“Now all of that has had to be cancelled.”