DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran plans to ban Iranian New Year travel and traditional gatherings in parks, President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday, as the coronavirus death toll rose to 2,077 in the worst-hit country in the Middle East.

Rouhani said more restrictions will be imposed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus that has infected 27,017 people across the Islamic Republic. The government has so far refused to impose a lockdown on Iranian cities.

“This plan is strict and it will create difficulties and restrictions for travel, and prompt people who have already traveled to return home faster,” Rouhani said in a remarks carried by state television.

The president said gatherings will be restricted during Sizdah Bedar on April 1, a nature festival which is part of the festivities during which Iranians traditionally hold picnics outdoors.

“These are tough decisions that are necessary to protect lives. All parks may be closed, and Sizdah Bedar will not be like previous years, but we have no choice but to do so,” Rouhani said, adding that details of the plan will be announced shortly.

Nowruz, or “new day” in Persian, is an ancient New Year celebration and the most important date in the calendar, when families gather and exchange gifts.

Officials have complained that many Iranians have ignored appeals to stay at home and cancel travel plans in the fight against the coronavirus.

The escalating outbreak in Iran has killed 2,077 people in Iran, health ministry official Kianush Jahanpur said on Wednesday, with 143 deaths recorded in the past 24 hours.

Iranian authorities have called on Iranians to avoid public places and stay at home, while schools, universities, cultural and sports centers have been temporarily closed across the country.

Rouhani said the new measures would be implemented for 15 days until April 4, when under normal circumstances schools open in Iran after the Persian New Year holidays.

Authorities announced Iran’s first infections and two deaths from the virus on Feb. 19. Iranian officials, including Rouhani, have repeatedly dismissed concerns raised by many Iranians over the handling of the outbreak, saying all the necessary measures to overcome the crisis have been taken.

Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus MacSwan

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