DUBAI (Reuters) - Friday prayer gatherings resumed in up to 180 Iranian cities and towns seen as only at low risk of coronavirus contagion after a two-month suspension, state media reported.
The resumption of mass prayers – which remained banned in the capital Tehran and some other major cities - followed the reopening on Monday of 132 mosques in areas consistently free of the coronavirus outbreak.
Iran has already rescinded a ban on inter-city trips and allowed large shopping malls to resume activity to help revive an economy already impaired by U.S. sanctions, despite warnings by health officials this could trigger a new wave of infections.
Friday’s worshippers had to heed social distancing and use face masks during sermons, as well as perform ritual ablutions at home and bring their own prayer beads, prayer rugs and clay tablets used during prostration, Iranian news agencies said.
With mosques still closed and religious gatherings banned, in addition to other restrictions since mid-March, the trajectory of infections has, according to the Health Ministry, is on a “gradual” downward trend in the Islamic Republic.
But there have been spikes of infections in some provinces, such as Khuzestan in the southwest, perhaps because more people are being screened for the COVID-19 respiratory disease, deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi told state television.
“We only tested hospitalised patients in previous months,” he said. “Now, those with fewer signs or those who have been in close contact with infected patients are being tested, and isolated if diagnosed.”
Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur put Iran’s coronavirus death toll at 6,541 on Friday, with 55 deaths in the past 24 hours with the total number of diagnosed cases at 104,691. Iran has suffered the worst death toll in the Middle East from the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Jahanpur said nearly half of those hospitalised in the past 24 hours were in Tehran and oil-rich Khuzestan province. “Khuzestan remains in a state of outbreak,” he tweeted.
Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich