As coronavirus infections soar in Iran, there is talk of a lockdown in Mashhad, the country's second city and a major destination for pilgrims this week.
Only hours after Iranian news agencies on Wednesday quoted two officials in Mashhad as saying that the holy city will be locked down for a week due to the worsening pandemic, another official who had also been quoted, denied the news.
The discrepancy in the statements made by the officials and denial of stricter measures may have been a result of pressure from the religious establishment in the Mashhad. Clerics control the holy city and its economy, which depends on a constant flow of pilgrims.
The influential religious establishment of Mashhad may be opposed to a lockdown because the birthday of the eighth Shiite Imam, Imam Reza whose shrine is in Mashhad is to be celebrated on Friday. The city receives tens of thousands of pilgrims on the birthday of the Imam and a lockdown on the day after the event could change the plans of many to travel to the city for the celebrations.
The number of COVID cases and deaths has alarmingly increasing in Iran in the past month and health authorities including the Health Minister Saeed Namaki have repeatedly warned that the situation may get out of hand.
On Wednesday the Health Ministry Spokesperson said in the last 24 hour 2,549 new cases had been identified and 141 COVID patients died. The daily death toll which had dropped to under 100 in April and for some time remained around 50 soared again in mid-June.
On Wednesday Dr. Hamid-Reza Rahimi, COVID-19 Public Relations Working Group of Mashhad Medical Sciences University said the reports quoting him on a week-long lockdown in Mashhad were unfounded.
He explained that the medical sciences university of the province does not have the authority to announce lockdowns and the decision lies with the governor and the coronavirus combat headquarters of the province. Medical sciences universities which are affiliated with the Health Ministry are tasked with carrying out coronavirus testing and offering treatment in their respective provinces.
Earlier in the day several news outlets had quoted him and other university officials as saying that the coronavirus Prevention and Combat Headquarters of Khorasan Razavi had decided to lockdown Mashhad as of Saturday for a week.
Borna News Agency, for instance, had quoted Mohammad-Hossein Bahraini, the spokesperson of the province's Coronavirus Prevention and Combat Headquarters, as saying that all universities, schools, seminaries, nurseries, sports complexes and cinemas, beauty salons and other businesses were to shut down and all public events including religious gatherings would be cancelled.
According to another news website, Tabnak, Bahraini said in the past month the number of patients in the hospitals attached to the Medical Sciences University of Mashhad had doubled to 660 with deaths tripling in the same period and reaching 30 a day.
Bahraini who is also the representative of the Health Minister in the province was quoted by PANA news agency as saying that the worsening of the situation has forced the authorities to allocate the 610-bed Imam Reza Hospital to coronavirus patients. After the initial outbreak when the numbers went down the hospital was used for non-COVID patients but has been repurposed again to deal with the worsening COVID situation.