Places of religious worship in Maharashtra, which have been shut since the COVID-19 lockdown in March, will reopen from Diwali Padwa on Monday, Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray announced on Saturday. As per the Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) released by the state government, religious places located out of COVID-19 containment zones will be allowed to remain open as per the timings decided by authorities, and devotees will be allowed inside in a staggered manner. Extending greetings to people on the occasion of the festival of lights, he said in a statement: We cant forget that the demon coronavirus is still amongst us. Even though this demon is slowly falling silent now, we cannot be complacent. Citizens need to follow discipline. Just like discipline and restraint were observed while celebrating Holi, Ganesh Chaturthi, Navratri and Pandharpur wari (annual pilgrimage), followers of other faiths also celebrated festivals like Eid, Mount Mary festival by keeping the COVID-19 safety protocol in mind, he said. The chief minister was repeatedly being targeted by the opposition BJP for keeping the places of worship shut even as unlocking began in June. However, Thackeray had defended his decision saying it was difficult to follow physical distancing at the places of worship. The CM said that although places of religious worship had to be shut during the pandemic, God was taking care of all devotees in the form of doctors, nurses and other health staff. He said that after the religious places of worship are reopened from Diwali Padwa that falls on Monday, rules and safety protocol have to be followed strictly. Crowding will have to avoided. The reopening of religious places is not a government order, but the wish of the Almighty. Shoes will have to kept outside the premises and wearing masks is mandatory, he said. If we follow discipline, we will get Gods blessings, Thackeray said. The SOP said only asymptomatic people will be allowed inside such places and wearing of a face mask is mandatory for devotees. The number of people to be allowed inside such places in a particular time slot will be decidedon the size of the structure and ventilation. Devotees will have to maintain social distancing while management of such places will have to conduct thermal scanning and make available hand wash or sanitiser, the SOP said. Local authorities can further add any directions to these guidelines taking into consideration the local conditions. Only asymptomatic people will be allowed and staggering of visitors will be done. Footwear should be preferably taken off inside vehicles. Otherwise there should be separate slots for individuals or families. Seating arrangement should be made in such a way that proper social distancing is followed, the guidelines said. Touching of statues, holy books, idols is not allowed and large gatherings continue to remain prohibited, as per the SOP. In view of the potential threat of spread of the coronavirus infection, only recorded devotional music should be played, and choir or singing groups are not allowed, it said. Among other guidelines, common prayer mats should be avoided and devotees should bring their own prayer mats or pieces of cloth, which they can take back with them. Physical offering of prasad, distribution or sprinkling of holy water is not allowed. Floors at places of worship should be cleaned multiple times in a day, and community kitchens and langars should follow physical distancing, the guidelines said. Effective sanitisation ofthe premises should be done with a particular focus on lavatories, and hand and foot washing stations. Workers at places of worship will have to under go pre-joining and weekly COVID-19 tests for highly exposed groups, as per the SOP. During his last webcast address to citizens, Thackeray had said that SOPs were being prepared and the decision on reopening of these places will be taken after Diwali. The issue had also led to a stand-off between Thackeray and Governor B S Koshyari, who reminded the Shiv Sena president of his Hindutva credentials and asked if he had turned secular. The governors letter to the chief minister was criticised by constituents of the MVA (Maha Vikas Aghadi) government.