Face coverings will be mandatory in all public enclosed spaces from Monday, the Northern Ireland Executive has agreed.
Stormont ministers also decided on Thursday that all children should be back at school by September, but to delay the reopening of wet pubs.
First Minister Arlene Foster said decisions at the Executive had been taken mindful of the fact that the R number pertaining to the transmission rate of the coronavirus has risen to an estimated 1.3.
“Because of the concern around the level of community transmission and the desire prioritise the reopening of our schools, we have decided that it is prudent to pause the reopening of our public houses and we have set a new indicative date of September 1,” she said.
“I want to acknowledge that the hospitality sector have been working very hard with us, they have been in partnership with us right throughout this issue and this is not a reflection on the hospitality sector, rather it’s a reflection on the fact that the R rate has risen, there is a rise in community transmission and we always said there is a need to work together to try and push that down.”
Turning to mandatory face coverings, Mrs Foster said retail workers will not have to wear masks, but those entering shops will.
“It’s about trying to give confidence to people who feel vulnerable and maybe have been shielding and we are asking the public to work with us and listen to what we are asking them to do,” she said.
The First Minister also announced a high street task force to help the retail sector, and that theatre and concert halls will be able open on a restricted basis from August 8, with an indicative date of September 1 for the return of audiences.
“We are going to permit spectators to be present at indoor sporting venues from August 10 but we have also said that further work is needed to risk assess the reopening of soft play areas and other venues,” she added.
Speaking separately, Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the Executive has prioritised reopening schools.
“It’s really important that we maximise the numbers of children that get back into school but it has to be done in a very clearly communicated way to parents because this is a very anxious time, so it needs to be heard loud and clear for every parent that it is a safe environment for children to go back to school, it also has to be safe for our teachers and staff who work in schools to be there,” she said.
Ms O’Neill indicated that the Executive will discuss finances to help schools reopen next week.
“There is no doubt in my mind that our schools need extra resource to be able to deliver this in a safe way because they are going to have extra pressures on them in terms of a cleaning regime, etc,” she said.
Education Minister Peter Weir welcomed the “strategic prioritisation” given to education.
“For years one to 10, they will be returning on the basis of protected bubbles of whole classes, and for years 11 to 14 try to minimise movement between classes. All the other protective measures that we have put in place and suggested to schools previously remain in place so we are looking after the health and safety of our young people,” he said.
“Full guidance will be issued to schools next week. The idea is to try and have the maximum level of social distancing, but the overriding issue is to ensure we have full classes.”
Earlier it emerged that 23 coronavirus clusters have been identified in the region since May 25 when the test and trace programme went live, with 11 clusters remaining open, according to the Public Health Agency (PHA).
Some 168 cases of Covid-19 have been associated with these clusters, with nine of the clusters having had five or more cases associated with them.
Earlier this week, two businesses in Newcastle, Co Down, closed temporarily following outbreaks among their staff.
The statement from the PHA came on Thursday as the Department of Health’s daily updates showed 43 more positive cases of coronavirus have been detected in the region, bringing the total to 6,049.
No new deaths were recorded on Thursday, leaving the total in the region at 556, according to departmental figures.
Dr Gerry Waldron, head of health protection at the PHA, said: “In the past seven days, five clusters have been identified. Thirty-five cases have been associated with these clusters, with 239 close contacts.
“This should act as a timely reminder that we must not become complacent – coronavirus remains in circulation and we have seen an increase in cases in recent weeks. It is therefore essential that we remember the key advice to help keep ourselves and those around us safe.
“Maintain social distancing, wash your hands regularly, and get tested if you display any symptoms of coronavirus.”
The Department of Health has also said the R number is now “highly likely” to be above one in Northern Ireland.
The current estimate for the R value is between 0.8 and 1.8.
R represents the number of individuals who, on average, will be infected by a person with the virus.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said while community transmission remains low in Northern Ireland, the number of positive tests per day has increased three-fold from early July.
Chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Young said: “The most recent data for Northern Ireland underlines the need for continued vigilance.
“There are five key steps each of us can take to keep ourselves and others safe – rigorously maintain social distancing; wash our hands well and often; wear face coverings in enclosed spaces where social distancing is difficult; co-operate fully with the Test, Trace and Protect programme, and download the Stop Covid NI app.”