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Is Dubai’s party over? Record Covid cases, countries raising barriers spark fears of a new lockdown

Fireworks emanate from the Burj Khalifah tower in Dubai during the Dec. 31, 2020 New Year’s Eve celebrations, which attracted thousands of tourists and saw relaxed restrictions on social gatherings, allowing up to 30 people to gather per household. AFP via Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — On the surface, Dubai’s party scene feels as vibrant as ever — bustling restaurants and bars, beaches and hotel pools occupied by relaxed residents and tourists taking in the winter sun. 

But daily record-hitting Covid-19 infections in the Middle East’s commercial and holiday hub have made chatter of a potential new lockdown unavoidable.  

“It’s getting really bad. How long did they think they could get away with this?” Farah S., a lawyer working in Dubai, told CNBC.  

New cases recorded on Monday reached an all-time daily high for the country at 3,591, according to the UAE’s Ministry of Health. When the country imposed its strictest lockdown in March and April that saw stay-at-home orders and total border closures, daily cases were less than one-tenth of that figure. 

Just last week, the desert emirate of 3.3 million — whose economy relies heavily on tourism and hospitality — had begun making changes that belie the government’s messaging that everything is under control. 

On Jan. 21, authorities directed all Dubai hospitals to suspend non-essential surgeries for a month. Around the same time, a directive went out suspending all “entertainment activities” in restaurants and bars. The cap on weddings, social events and private parties has been cut to 10 people from 30. Restaurants and cafes, from Jan. 27 onward, will require increased space between tables and less people per table.  

Customers and equipment in gyms must now be spaced 3 meters apart as opposed to the prior 2 meters, though that 2-meter requirement was often not very judiciously applied in the first place.   

Dubai on Sunday fired the head of its health department, replacing Humaid al-Qutami, who had held the post since 2018, with a new appointee. Authorities did not give a reason for the replacement and did not reply to CNBC’s request for comment.  

Some Dubai residents have claimed that hospitals are running out of ICU beds, though this could not be confirmed as hospitals and health authorities did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.  

But over the weekend, the UAE’s health ministry published a post on its Instagram story headed with the words “URGENT HIRING”, offering temporary contracts for ICU nurses in Dubai as well as the emirates of Sharjah and Ras al Khaimah. This came just days after the order to halt non-essential surgeries. 

To date, the UAE’s total confirmed cases count at 281,546, with 798 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Its death rate of 0.3% is significantly below the global average.  

A 2020 ‘safe travel’ haven 

After keeping its cases well below 2,000 per day for all of 2020, Dubai emirate — which adopted a strategy of openness in contrast to the UAE’s more conservative capital Abu Dhabi — billed itself as a pandemic success story.  

It was certified as a “Safe Travel” destination by the World Tourism Council last summer, drawing celebrities and influencers. Hotels and theme parks saw jumps in occupancy and tourists from all over the world flocked to Dubai for a sense of much-missed normality. Mask-wearing remained ubiquitous and testing is widely available.  

Just in the past two months the city has hosted golf and polo tournaments, shopping and film festivals, and concerts, promoting its image as safe and welcoming ahead of its long-anticipated World Expo 2020, which was postponed to October 2021 because of the pandemic.

But the new and highly-transmissible coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K. is suspected to have triggered the recent case spike as thousands of British tourists poured in over the holidays to escape harsh U.K. lockdown. Daily tallies have more than tripled within the span of a month since Dec. 30.  

Woman sunbathers sit along a beach in the Gulf emirate of Dubai on July 24, 2020, while behind is seen the Burj al-Arab hotel. After a painful four-month tourism shutdown that ended earlier in July, Dubai is billing itself as a safe destination with the resources to ward off coronavirus.

KARIM SAHIB | AFP via Getty Images

Andy Pearson, a British engineer living in Dubai, blames the large volumes of tourists he believes aren’t following local safety requirements. 

“The police should do more checks in the party areas to make sure people are sticking to the rules,” he said. “Tourists don’t care because they can just go home — they’re ruining it for the rest of us.”

The Dubai Media Office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether a lockdown was coming or what further changes would be made to combat the rise in cases. 

Countries put up barriers over UAE case and test concerns 

Another warning signal came last Thursday when Denmark announced a five-day suspension on flights from the UAE over suspicions that the Covid tests administered to travelers before leaving Dubai weren’t reliable. 

“We can’t ignore such a suspicion,” Denmark’s transport minister said, adding that at least one citizen returned from Dubai with the variant recently discovered in South Africa, out of several more who he said tested positive for Covid.  

The UAE’s health ministry pushed back on the announcement, asserting that all accredited UAE testing centers operate by international standards and are inspected regularly. Talks are underway between the two countries, UAE authorities said. 

Earlier in the month, the U.K. and Israel imposed mandatory quarantine requirements for travelers coming from the UAE. The UAE was previously on the U.K.’s safe-travel corridor, which had voided the need for arrival quarantine periods.    

The Covid-19 case figures include the whole country and do not specify where infections are concentrated. But while is Dubai welcoming tourists — some requiring negative PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test results before boarding and others receiving tests on arrival — Abu Dhabi still requires anyone flying into the emirate to quarantine for ten days upon arrival. Entrants to Abu Dhabi from Dubai must also provide a series of negative PCR test results.      

Nationwide vaccination push 

The developments come as the UAE’s nationwide vaccination campaign is in full swing, in what is the second-fastest rollout in the world after Israel.

China’s Sinopharm vaccine is available around the country for all residents aged 16 and older free of charge, while Dubai’s Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine rollout that began in late December was announced on Saturday as being delayed. Dubai authorities blame the delay on a “global shortage.”  

Still, the UAE intends to meet its target to inoculate half its population by the end of March. Last week, it announced emergency use approval for Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, for which Phase 3 trials are still underway in Abu Dhabi. 

Certain industries are now mandating weekly PCR tests for unvaccinated employees, part of what some residents feel is a pressure campaign to encourage vaccination. For many living in Dubai, this move — and broader restrictions — are welcome. 

“I think they should lock down for two weeks,” said Sara El Dallal, an education consultant living in Dubai. “Restrictions have been put (in place) since last week and still the numbers did not decrease.” She noted that government schools have held their classes online since early January.  

Melissa Webb, a Dubai-based yoga teacher, caught the virus herself after returning from a family visit to the U.K. over Christmas. But she tested negative upon arrival in Dubai, only to test positive three days later when trying to enter Abu Dhabi. She shared her story as a cautionary tale. 

“Obviously I’ve been glad for some six months of normality, but since Christmas I feel very on edge again,” she said. “But I recognize the need for the economy to stay open, otherwise we won’t be able to live here much longer anyway.”

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