The Saudi Arabia government on Sunday partially resumed Umrah, an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time of the year, with strict health precautions, AFP reported. The year-long pilgrimage was suspended in March in view of the coronavirus outbreak.

Thousands of worshippers were seen in masks and adhering to physical distancing norms as they entered the Grand Mosque in the holy city in groups to perform the pilgrimage, which involves the ritual of circling the Kaaba, a cubic structure that Muslims around the world face to pray five times a day.

The pilgrimage will be revived in three phases. Last week, Saudi Hajj Minister Mohammad Benten had said that 6,000 pilgrims will be allowed every day during the first phase to perform the Umrah “meticulously and within a specified period of time”. Only Saudi citizens and residents are allowed to enter the mosque during this first phase of reopening, according to AP.

Pilgrims will not be allowed to touch the Black Stone in the eastern corner of the Kaaba – a tradition that is customary but not mandatory among Muslims. Further, the Grand Mosque will be cleaned and sanitised multiple times in a day.

The Saudi Hajj minister added that a health worker will accompany each batch of 20 or 25 pilgrims and medical teams will be stationed on the ground in case of an emergency.

The pilgrims will need to book a specific time and date through an online application before their visit to avoid crowding and to maintain physical distancing. Visitors can also use the app to opt for their means of transport as well as decide on meeting points.

State news channels showed less than 50 people circling the Kaaba at the same time and walking several feet apart from each other. Usually, the Grand Mosque is full of worshippers from around the world.

In the second phase beginning October 18, the limit on the number of pilgrims will be increased to 15,000 per day. A maximum of 40,000 people will be permitted to perform prayers at the mosque.

The interior ministry said that visitors from around the world will be allowed to perform Umrah from November 1, during which the limit will be raised to 20,000 for pilgrims and 60,000 for those wanting to pray.

The ministry had last month said that the decision to allow the resumption of the pilgrimage was based on the “aspirations of Muslims home and abroad”. It added that the Umrah will be allowed in full capacity after the coronavirus pandemic comes to an end. Until then, the Saudi health ministry will decide on the countries that can be allowed to enter based on the health risk.

In July, the government had held the annual Hajj pilgrimage, significantly scaling down the number of participants over concerns that it could become a global super-spreader event. The government selected pilgrims – all residents or citizens of Saudi Arabia – through an online portal. In comparison to the usual 20 lakh pilgrims, only 1,000 people took part after they were tested for the infection and then quarantined.

Saudi Arabia has so far reported 3,35,997 coronavirus cases and the toll stood at 4,850, according to the John Hopkins University data.