By Deborah Kyvrikosaios
ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece allowed restaurants and bars to open from Monday as it took a further step towards easing coronavirus restrictions ahead of the planned start of the tourist season on May 15.
Six months after the government reimposed lockdown measures in the face of a second wave of the pandemic, the chance to return to bars and tavernas was like a small step towards normality for many enjoying warm Easter weather.
"When they brought me the glass of water, I thought, 'its like old times again'. It's great," said Grigoris Kirlidis as he sat at a cafe in Athens.
Greece got through the first wave of the pandemic in better shape than many other European countries but its health services were put under severe strain in recent months by a surge in infections in areas, including the capital Athens and the second-largest city Thessaloniki. It has recorded a total of 348,568 cases and 10,587 deaths.
As cheap self-testing and vaccinations gathered pace, the government has started easing restrictions and hopes to avoid another lost summer for the tourist sector, which accounts for a fifth of the country's economic output and one in five jobs.
"We are happy that we opened after six months, we believe the opening of the restaurants signals the opening of tourism," said waiter Panagiotis Megremis.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said vaccines and lockdown measures have helped stabilise case rates but he wants the re-opening to move cautiously to avoid a resurgence of infections.
Some three million people, out of a population of 11 million have received at least one dose of vaccine and borders have been opened to visitors from several countries provided they are vaccinated or can show negative test results.
The opening came at the end of the Orthodox Easter holiday weekend, where travel restrictions prevented many people from taking their customary trips to villages or summer homes for the religious holiday.
But for the moment, cafe owner Dyonisis Salpanis said he was just happy to be back at work.
"We had forgotten what it was like, we see people sitting at the tables," he said. "I hope everything will go well and we don't go back to the way things were before."
(Editing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)