A woman wears a protective face mask and gloves, amid fear of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), as she sells the masks in Tajrish square in Tehran, Iran on 2 April.
A woman wears a protective face mask and gloves, amid fear of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), as she sells the masks in Tajrish square in Tehran, Iran on 2 April.Reuters

Iran announced Saturday it had shut non-essential businesses in over half its cities and towns for up to two weeks and introduced movement restrictions to rein in its novel coronavirus outbreak.

The Islamic republic has avoided imposing a full lockdown since it was hit by COVID-19 in February, with president Hassan Rouhani arguing the country’s sanctions-battered economy cannot afford to be shut down for an extended period.

Iran’s coronavirus task force announced Saturday that only essential services—including health centres and pharmacies, food shops and public transport—will be allowed to open in the country’s areas of highest risk, for up to two weeks.

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These include more than half of the country’s cities and towns, according to the task force, with Tehran and all other provincial capitals affected by the measures.

Private vehicles are also prohibited from leaving the worst-hit areas until further notice, and are banned from circulating between 9:00 pm and 4:00 am in Tehran and other large cities.

The task force said more than 53 million of Iran’s over 80-million-strong population would be affected by the measures.

Rouhani warned that the Islamic republic was facing its “third wave” of infections, and said the new restrictions were a signal to Iranians that the problem is “very serious.”

“We call on all citizens to adhere to all the rules, in order to reduce the economic pressure imposed today on businesses as quickly as possible,” Rouhani said Saturday.

“We must convince people that we have no other option,” he added.

‘Two crucial weeks’

Rouhani also promised to provide financial support of one million rials per month—about four dollars—“for the next four months to about 30 million people”, without giving further details.

Iran is the worst-hit country in the Middle East, and its virus death toll has passed 400 a day since the start of November.

The health ministry on Saturday reported 12,931 new daily cases of infection and 431 deaths, bringing the total number of infections to 841,308 and fatalities to 44,327.

Some officials, including from the health ministry, have expressed concern that the real toll is likely to be higher.

On the streets of Tehran, the new measures were met with some scepticism.

Saleswoman Mahsa Teimouri said people had ignored health warnings about the virus before.

“It doesn’t matter if the government imposes restrictions, since people do not comply,” she said.

Nurse Ziba Amrollahi also said that rules were being flouted.

“There are people in the streets, and no one cares about complying with the rules,” Amrollahi said. “People are travelling and attending gatherings more than they did in the past.”

On Saturday, the front page of the reformist newspaper Sazandegi showed a closed shop with a poster on its door announcing that “we stay at home because your life is more precious to us.”

The government’s official newspaper, Iran, carried the headline: “Two crucial weeks to control the coronavirus.”