TEHRAN, Iran —
Iran allowed some businesses in the capital and nearby towns to re-open Saturday after weeks of lockdown aimed at containing the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
Israel also announced an easing of its own lockdown measures.
Iran was slow to respond to the pandemic and held off on imposing widespread restrictions even after other countries in the region with far fewer cases forced most businesses to close. Iran has reported more than 80,000 confirmed cases and over 5,000 deaths.
Gyms, restaurants, shopping malls and Tehran’s grand bazaar will remain closed. Shrines and mosques are also shuttered, and a ban on public gatherings remains in place. Government offices have reopened with a third of employees working from home, and schools and universities are still closed.
Traffic was heavy in Tehran early Saturday, the first day of the work week. Authorities allowed businesses outside the capital to reopen a week ago.
The virus, for which there is no vaccine, causes mild to moderate flu-like symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.
Iran’s leaders have said they had to consider the economic consequences of quarantine measures, as the country struggles under severe sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the U.S. from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
On Friday, U.N. human rights experts called on Iran to release political prisoners who could be vulnerable to infection inside the country’s detention facilities. Iran has temporarily released 100,000 prisoners, but is still detaining many convicted on security charges, including several dual-nationals.
Rights groups say many of the dual-nationals are political prisoners or are being held as bargaining chips for future negotiations with the West.
“We recognize the emergency situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the problems it faces in fighting the pandemic, including reported challenges in accessing medical supplies due to sanctions,” the UN experts said. “Some are at great risk from COVID-19 due to their age or underlying health conditions. We call on the authorities to immediately release them.”
The experts highlighted the cases of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and defenders Narges Mohammadi and Arash Sadeghi, as well as dual nationals Ahmadreza Djalali , an Iranian-Swedish national; Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-British-American national; and Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb , two Iranian-Austrian nationals.
They said all seven have requested temporary release but have been rejected or not received a response.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili denied nationality was a factor in the prisoner releases.
Also on Saturday, Iranian media said 160 members of the army, including 40 uniformed soldiers, have contracted the virus and since recovered. The reports didn’t elaborate but Iran’s army is active in sanitizing public places and building mobile hospitals and convalescent homes.
Israel has also imposed tight lockdown measures in recent weeks to contain an outbreak, including closures of many businesses, forcing most workers at operating businesses to work from home and bans on public worship and exercise.
In a nationally televised address Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the measures had been largely successful and announced plans to begin easing restrictions in the coming days. He said some small businesses and high-tech companies would be allowed to reopen, more people could return to their offices, and small public prayers and limited exercise could take place. Special education classes and certain child-care arrangements will resume.
Netanyahu said the measures, expected to be approved by his Cabinet, would be reviewed after two weeks. Depending on their success, restrictions will be further eased at that time.
Despite the signs of progress, Israeli authorities closed off two small Arab towns in the north to prevent the spread of the virus. Police said movement into and out of Deir al-Assad and neighboring Bineh would be strictly limited. Israeli authorities have imposed similar closures on some ultra-Orthodox Jewish areas, where cases spiked after many disregarded health guidelines in the early days of the pandemic.
Netanyahu called on Israeli Muslims to refrain from large gatherings during the upcoming Ramadan holy month, just as Jews were forced to do during the just-ended Passover holiday. He also said Israel’s upcoming Memorial Day and Independence Day would also need to be marked privately at home.
Israel, which imposed nationwide restrictions and ordered all non-essential businesses to close in mid-March, has reported more than 13,000 cases, including 164 deaths.
Elsewhere in the region, Syria announced it will shorten curfew hours by 90 minutes a day and allow some shops and small businesses to open on alternate days of the week during the holy month of Ramadan, which starts next week.
Mosques will remain closed to communal prayers until at least May 2, the government said. Syria, considered a high-risk country by the World Health Organization because of the destruction of its health care infrastructure during the nine-year war, has only recorded 38 infections and two deaths in government-controlled areas.
Sudanese formed long lines outside bakeries and fuel stations early Saturday ahead of a round-the-clock curfew in the capital, Khartoum, that is set to last three weeks. The country, which is still reeling from last year’s uprising that toppled longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir, has reported 66 cases, including 10 deaths.
An outbreak in Sudan would severely strain the health system, which has been weakened by decades of civil war and sanctions.
Authorities have also banned Friday prayers in Khartoum mosques, a measure taken by several other countries in the region. The transitional government sacked Khartoum’s governor, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Abdoun Hamad, after he objected to the ban.
Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.