By Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves
LISBON (Reuters) - Most Portuguese regions will enter the third phase of easing the COVID-19 lockdown next week, but stricter rules will stay in place in municipalities where transmission rates remain high, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said on Thursday.
"These set of measures are neither prizes nor punishments," Antonio Costa told a news conference. "They are public health measures for the safety of the population, of people."
Portugal, which imposed a lockdown in January to curb what was then the world's worst COVID-19 surge, started lifting restrictions last month and has since reopened some schools, restaurant and cafe terraces, museums and hair salons.
Over the last two weeks, people have flocked out of doors to enjoy the warmer spring weather, to see friends and relatives, and enjoy a meal outside after more than two months stuck at home.
From Monday, high schools, universities, cinemas, shopping malls and indoor areas of restaurants will reopen in the vast majority of the 278 municipalities in mainland Portugal but under restrictions designed to reduce the risk of contagion.
Outdoor events, weddings, christenings can also resume but under capacity rules.
However, in municipalities where the limit of 120 cases per 100,000 people has been reached, the rules will be different.
Seven municipalities, including the tourist city of Albufeira in the southern Algarve region, famous for its beaches and golf courses but now nearly deserted, will not progress to the third phase of lockdown easing.
Taking a step back, four municipalities, such as the largest city in western Algarve Portimao, will reimpose tougher lockdown rules, such as closing cafe terraces and other non-essential businesses.
"This is really a fight against the pandemic we have to do together," Costa said. "The effort cannot be wasted until the vaccination process is effective."
Portugal, a nation of just over 10 million, has suffered 829,358 cases and 16,933 deaths since the start of the pandemic. It has administered nearly 2,3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far.
No crisis in recent history has hit Portugal's tourism-dependent economy as hard, with GDP shrinking 7.6% last year, its biggest annual slump since 1936.
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Sergio Goncalves, Editing by Angus MacSwan)