Temples and other places of worship will reopen in Maharashtra from Monday, the state government has said, listing coronavirus safety measures such as masks, sanitisers and temperature checks that they will have to follow.
Religious places have been closed in Maharashtra and most other states since March but the opposition BJP has mounted a campaign to have them reopened, backed by Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari.
Last week, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had said places of worship will re-open soon as he offered Diwali greetings to the state.
Mr Thackeray also confirmed that schools were set to resume (for Classes 9 to 12) after Diwali, with safety protocols already in place for this.
The Chief Minister said he had held out on reopening religious places because of the risk to senior citizens who visit them. Medical experts believe elderly people (those above 60) are at greater risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus.
As part of the Standard Operating Procedures or SOPs, the governing bodies of the religious places will be responsible for crowd management and people above 65, children below 10, and pregnant women have been advised to stay at home.
"When will temples open? They will open soon. After Diwali, we will create SOPs for this. Elderly people visit temples and they are at risk (of contracting Covid). Therefore overcrowding needs to be avoided... be it temples, masjids or any other place," Mr Thackeray had said last week.
The Chief Minister said that although the SOPs would be released later, the wearing of face masks while visiting places of worship in the state would be compulsory. He laid particular stress on that and warned people that those found without face masks would be fined.
"People are criticising me. I'm ready to face that. I'm cautious for senior citizens. If one Covid-positive person is without a mask, he can infect 400 others... these are doctor's figures," he said.
The re-opening of temples in the state had triggered an acerbic row between Mr Thackeray and Governor Koshyari early last month; the Governor, in a sarcasm-dense letter, asked the Chief Minister if he had "turned secular".
The Chief Minister retorted that his Hindutva did not require a certificate of authenticity and that the government would only take a decision on this matter after "careful consideration".
The Chief Minister and several other leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, have all stressed on the need to minimise contact and maximise social distancing during the festivals, to ensure the virus does not spread.
Maharashtra has logged over 17.4 lakh cases since the pandemic began, with nearly 46,000 of those cases resulting in deaths. However, the number of active cases in the state has dropped to 85,000, with over 16 lakh people recovered from the infection.