By John Miller
ZURICH (Reuters) -Switzerland will allow large events topping 10,000 people starting on Saturday, provided attendees have so-called COVID certificates showing they are vaccinated, recovered from COVID-19 or have tested negative.
The plan, announced on Wednesday, puts Switzerland at Europe's vanguard of back-to-normal efforts and aligns with the country's "lockdown light" strategy, balancing economic protections with pandemic-related health measures.
Mask-wearing outdoors will no longer be required, restaurant seating will be unlimited and discos can re-open their doors, with no masks required for people with COVID certificates.
Switzerland's re-opening plan accelerates previous proposals that foresaw 10,000-person events from August 20, but Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said there was "no reason to wait" as new infections fell to 154 on Wednesday, with two deaths, a sign the pandemic is under control.
"It's a big step, a little bit courageous, and we can't get overconfident," Berset told a news conference in Bern.
"We're seeking to strike the right balance."
The easing leaves limits of 30 people at private indoor gatherings, 50 people at private outdoor gatherings and general mask requirements on public transportation.
Starting Saturday, Switzerland will also ease travel from European countries in the Schengen passport-free zone, the United States, Albania and Serbia, aiming to help the pandemic-hit tourism sector as summer starts.
Martin Nydegger, director of Swiss Tourism, is hoping for a bump in guests from the United States, where vaccination is well advanced, and Middle Eastern Gulf states.
"They are waiting to be allowed to enter Switzerland and for visas to be issued," Nydegger forecast.
"The long-distance markets in the East (Asia) will come later."
Switzerland is working with the European Union on mutual recognition of COVID certificates, with an agreement likely next month, a Swiss government lawyer said.
From now on, border health measures will focus on countries where variants of concern, including the infectious Delta variant first documented in India, are spreading, Switzerland said.
Even for travellers from such places, "vaccinated and recovered people... can enter without the obligation to test or quarantine, as long as it is certain that the vaccination offers good protection," the government said.
(Reporting by John Miller and Silke Koltrowitz, Editing by Michael Shields)