MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Traffic jams and outdoor crowds are back in the Philippine capital and 38 other cities and provinces Tuesday after officials allowed businesses and public transport, including shopping malls, movie houses and restaurants, to operate at full capacity as COVID-19 cases continued to drop with more vaccinations, officials said.

In a bid to further boost the pandemic-battered economy, authorities placed metropolitan Manila and 38 other regions under the lowest rung of a five-step pandemic alert system from Tuesday to March 15 and lifted most health restrictions, but still required the full vaccination of residents 18 and older against the coronavirus and the wearing of face masks outdoors and in indoor establishments.

Social distancing is no longer required in Manila and the other specified areas, restaurants can now remove plastic barriers on tables, and public gatherings — such as birthday parties, weddings, sport events and family reunions — can fully resume. All government employees have been ordered to return to office for work.

“Now everything is open,” Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said. “We’re happy seeing the traffic again, it means there’s really economic activity and people are going out.”

The Philippines imposed one of the longest lockdowns and police-enforced quarantines two years ago when successive COVID-19 outbreaks hit and sparked the worst economic recession in 2020 and pushed unemployment and hunger to record levels.

Economic growth has resumed since then and could return to pre-pandemic levels this year unless external turbulence like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine worsens, Lopez said.

Daily COVID-19 cases dropped from over 37,000 during the most recent peak in January to below 1,000. The 951 cases reported Monday bring the total number of confirmed infections to more than 3.6 million with 56,451 deaths, the second-highest totals in Southeast Asia after Indonesia.