By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI, April 20 (Reuters) – Shopping malls and bazaars reopened in Iran on Monday despite warnings by some health officials that a new wave of coronavirus infections could ripple through the Middle Eastern country hardest hit by the pandemic.
Iran has struggled to curb the spread of the highly contagious lung disease known as COVID-19 but authorities also worry that measures to limit public life to rein in the virus could finish off an already sanctions-battered economy.
Seeking a balance between protecting public health and shielding the economy, the government has refrained from wholesale lockdowns of cities like those imposed in many other countries, but has extended closures of schools and universities and banned cultural, religious and sports gatherings.
Effective on Monday, President Hassan Rouhani’s government lifted a ban on inter-city travel and ended a closure of businesses judged to pose only a “medium risk” of spreading the coronavirus, across the country.
“Medium-risk businesses like shops in… bazaars or beside each other in buildings like shopping centres will be allowed to reopen while respecting health protocols,” Rouhani said on Sunday in a televised meeting of his coronavirus task force.
With that ban lifted, state television showed heavy commuter traffic resuming in the capital Tehran and other cities.
The return to bustling urban activity drew concern and criticism from some health experts, the head of Tehran’s coronavirus task force and the chairman of its city council.
“I am seriously concerned about what is happening … My fear is that people will not take the outbreak seriously,” a doctor at Tehran’s Rasulollah hospital told state TV.
“Everything depends on the degree to which people are respecting the health protocols. People should not think that the situation has become normal again,” Mohammad Asayi, an adviser to the health minister, told state TV.
“Stay at home!” he said.
The protocols call for Iranians to maintain social-distancing, wear masks in public and wash their hands regularly, but are advisory only with no penalties for infractions.
Health inspectors will visit reopened shops at random to help ensure compliance with those measures, government officials told state media.
Rouhani said on Sunday “high-risk” businesses, including theatres, gyms, saunas and beauty salons, would remain closed “until further notice”. Mosques and shrines, he added, will stay shut at least until May 4, some 10 days into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
But Alireza Zali, head of the government-run coronavirus task force in Tehran, cautioned that reopening businesses risked wider transmissions of the virus, Iranian media reported.
“The most important point is that more commuting, especially through public transportation, adds to the possibility of the spread of the virus,” Zali told state TV.
Nasrin Hosseinzadeh, a retired Tehran teacher, told Reuters by telephone that the city on Monday was busy again “like those days before the coronavirus outbreak. No one seems to care anymore”.
Mohsem Hashemi, head of the Tehran City Council, also warned of a resurgence of the disease “if the restrictions are relaxed too early”, Iranian media reported.
The health ministry said on Monday the Islamic Republic’s death toll from COVID-19 had reached 5,209 among a total of 83,505 infected people. The 24-hour tally of new deaths, however, has been falling over the past days.
A parliamentary report last week, however, suggested the death toll might be almost double the announced figure and the number of infections eight to 10 times more, given the lack of widespread tracking and testing of suspected cases.
Many government offices had already reopened on April 11 with one-third of their staff working from home.
Iranian authorities have blamed U.S. sanctions for the difficulties in overcoming the coronavirus outbreak, and urged other countries and the United Nations to press Washington to lift the penalties. U.S. officials have ruled this out.
(Writing by Parisa Hafezi Editing by Mark Heinrich)