By Tsvetelia Tsolova
SOFIA, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Bulgaria said on Wednesday it would close schools, restaurants, shopping malls and gyms until Dec. 21 as it struggles to contain a surge in new coronavirus infections.
The restrictions, which will start late on Friday, are aimed at preventing a strained health system from being overwhelmed and at halting the spread of infections in the Balkan country of 7 million people.
"Only one thing has been proven to have an impact on COVID-19 - decreasing social contacts or quarantine. To ease the pressure on hospitals that are on the brink, we are introducing measures for three weeks," Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said.
Like much of central and eastern Europe, Bulgaria weathered the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic relatively well in the spring, but cases have spiked across the region this autumn.
Bulgaria registered 4,382 new infections on Wednesday, bringing the total number to 129,348.
Some 6,365 people are in hospitals and about 400 of them are in intensive care. Hospitals are strained, with many short-staffed due to rising infections among medical staff.
Bulgaria's COVID-19 fatalities per 100,000 people have been the third highest in the European Union over the past 14 days, after Belgium and the Czech Republic, data showed. In total, 3,226 people in Bulgaria have died from COVID-19 this year.
"The restrictions are needed to limit the spread of the infection, decrease the number of fatalities and allow each Bulgarian family to celebrate Christmas," chief health inspector Angel Kunchev told reporters.
Several hundred Bulgarians protested on Wednesday against the new measures and demanded the resignation of the government, accusing it of failing to reform the health and education system amid widespread corruption.
Under the lockdown, schools and universities will switch to online studies, while kindergartens will be closed.
Private gatherings will be limited to 15 people, and all restaurants, bars, cafes and night clubs will shut. Tourist trips at home and abroad will be banned.
After protests from businesses, the government decided to allow smaller shops to remain open and sports events to go ahead without spectators. Theatres will stay open at 30% of capacity.
Labour Minister Denitsa Sacheva said the government would initially extend 50 million levs ($30.5 million) in financial support to workers in businesses forced to shut and that overall compensation would reach up to 400 million levs. ($1 = 1.6410 leva) (Editing by Gareth Jones)
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