(Reuters) - Shop closures and traffic restrictions in Iran will begin earlier on Saturday in an effort to avert a resurgence of coronavirus infections and deaths as Iranians prepare for the Yalda Night winter festival, authorities reported.
"Let's not gather, so we don't become fewer," President Hassan Rouhani said in televised remarks on Saturday, urging Iranians not to hold extended family gatherings on Yalda Night, or Shab-e Yalda.
This year, the ancient winter solstice celebration falls on Sunday night. Families traditionally celebrate until the early hours of the morning, reciting poems, singing and eating nuts, dried fruits, watermelon, pomegranates and persimmon.
Shops were ordered to close two hours earlier, from 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi announced on state television. A traffic curfew was brought forward an hour to 8 p.m. until 4 a.m.
The Health Ministry said on Saturday that 175 people had died over the past 24 hours, the lowest daily death toll since Sept. 19. It said to date a total of 53,448 people had died from the coronavirus and 1,152,072 had been infected in Iran, the Middle East's worst hit country.
Raisi said there had been a decline of 50% in daily deaths from coronavirus since stricter restrictions were imposed on Nov. 21 to curb the spread of the virus.
He said the spread of the virus had slowed in 30 of Iran's 31 provinces, but holding Yalda gatherings could reverse those efforts.
When the Yalda feast is over, traffic restrictions will go back to 9 p.m. to 4 a.m. in the lower risk "orange" cities, including the capital Tehran, Raisi said.
The Yalda Night festival is also celebrated in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.
Pomegranates are eaten to symbolise the cycle of life, watermelon represents health while dried fruits and nuts, or ajeel, symbolise prosperity and wealth.
(email@example.com; Editing by Ros Russell)