By Gleb Stolyarov and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber
MOSCOW - Russian factory and construction workers returned to work on Tuesday despite a new surge in coronavirus cases which gave Russia the second highest number of infections in the world after the United States.
In a surprise announcement on Monday, Putin said it was time after six weeks to gradually lift nationwide restrictions that had forced many people to work from home and businesses to temporarily close.
Although Putin gave wide leeway to Russia's regions to ease or tighten restrictions as they saw fit, he said it made sense for certain sectors of the bruised economy such as construction and heavy industry to be allowed to restart work from Tuesday.
His statement, made on the same day that Russia overtook Italy in coronavirus numbers, drew criticism from some anti-Kremlin politicians. On Tuesday, the number of Russian coronavirus cases surpassed the official tallies of Britain and Spain.
With 232,243 cases, Russia now has the second highest number of cases in the world after the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins University in the United States, but with 2,116 deaths one of the lowest mortality rates.
Government officials attribute the lower death toll and the rising and large number of cases to a vast testing programme, under which they say 5.8 million tests have been conducted.
In Moscow, where local authorities have ordered the lockdown to remain in place until the end of May, many people seemed to think Putin's announcement marked the end of restrictions.
Data compiled by internet firm Yandex showed that many Muscovites had left their homes on Tuesday morning in spite of the lockdown. New rules introduced on Tuesday mean they have to wear masks and gloves on public transport and in food shops.
Kremlin critics say Putin's order to ease restrictions jeopardises the population's health and is motivated by a desire for the state not to have to stump up more economic support.
Putin on Monday unveiled new support measures for businesses and for families with children who have seen their livelihoods devastated. He said unemployment had doubled to 1.4 million in a month and he wanted to try to stop it spiralling higher.
Dmitry Gudkov, an opposition politician, said Putin's easing decision shifted responsibility and potential blame for future unpopular decisions onto regional governors whom the Russian leader has told to implement measures to contain the virus.
"The governors will be the ones introducing restrictions," Gudkov wrote on Facebook. "They are the ones who will be responsible for the spread of the virus. Direct your anger at them."
(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow; Editing by Andrew Osborn)