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COVID-19: Iran Reopens Religious Shrines; Kremlin Spokesman Leaves Hospital

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An Iranian official checks the temperature of visitors at the Shah Abdol-Azim shrine in the capital, Tehran, on May 25.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is almost 350,000 with more than 5.4 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Iran

Iran has reopened its religious shrines, some two months after closing them due to the Middle East's deadliest coronavirus outbreak.

The shrines were reopened on May 25 amid a gradual easing of restrictions put in place to contain the pandemic, which has killed 7,451 people and infected over 137,000, according to official figures. Real numbers are believed to be significantly higher.

The measures come after Iranian President Hassan Rohani said the day before that 10 out of the country's 31 provinces are now in the virus "containment stage."

Rohani said shrines will be open each day for three hours in the morning and three hours in the evening while observing strict health protocols. The limited reopening of holy sites comes after Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Iran in mid-March closed key holy shrines, including the Imam Reza shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad and Fatima Masumeh shrine in Qom, where the first cases of coronavirus were reported in February, following criticism of a slow government response to the pandemic.

Videos posted online by Iranian media on May 25 showed visitors, some wearing masks, running toward the shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad while being guided by attendants.

In a statement posted on its website, the shrine said visitors must observe health protocols such as wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and bringing their own prayer mats and other accessories.

Another video showed the reopening of the Masoumeh shrine in Qom, where there appeared to be a disregard for social-distancing rules aimed at preventing the spreading of COVID-19.

The closure of the religious sites, visited every year by millions of pilgrims who often touch and kiss the shrines, had triggered protests by hard-liners who attempted to break in to the two shrines.

Museums and historical sites were reopened on May 24.

All government employees working from home must return to their offices on May 30, Rohani said over the weekend.

Sports activities are due to resume without spectators and universities are due to reopen in early June.

Ukraine

Authorities in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, have allowed the city's subway system to resume operations after being closed for more than two months as part of the measures to restrict the movement of people during the coronavirus outbreak.

Officials said on May 25 that people will have their temperature taken before entering the subway system. Those with a body temperature higher than 37.2 degrees Celsius will be refused entry.

Those who do enter the underground transportation system will still have to follow social distancing and other restrictions still in place, they added.

Subway operations also resumed in the eastern city of Kharkiv on May 25.

Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko said on May 25 that as of June 1, the city administration plans to reopen kindergartens, sports venues, fitness centers, sports schools, clubs for children and youths, beaches and recreation areas by rivers and lakes, vocational schools, and universities. Swimming pools will remain closed, he said.

Klitschko also said that cemeteries in Kyiv will reopen for visitors on June 1.

Despite the easing of restrictions, Ukraine has extended travel restrictions for entering and leaving the country until June 15.

As a result, Hungary's low-cost airline Wizz Air says it has prolonged the suspension of its flights to Ukraine until June 15.

As of early on May 25, 21,245 coronavirus cases, including 623 deaths, had been registered in Ukraine.

Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, has left the hospital after recovering from the coronavirus, Russian news agencies report.

Interfax quoted Peskov as saying on May 25 that he will have to stay at home for another two weeks.

“For now, I will be in quarantine," the 52-year-old told TASS, adding that he "will gradually start working from home."

Peskov was hospitalized after testing positive for coronavirus along with his wife, Tatyana Navka on May 12. Navka recovered and was released from hospital on May 21.

He suffered from pneumonia in both lungs, Interfax reported.

Other top officials have contracted the virus, including Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Culture Minister Olga Lyubimova, and Construction Minister Vladimir Yakushev.

Putin has worked remotely over the past few weeks from his Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, chairing meetings with officials by videoconference

But on May 25, the 67-year-old Russian leader held talks with the director-general of Russian Railways, Oleg Belozerov, at the Kremlin, his office said.

It did not say whether Putin would be returning to work full time in the Kremlin.

Russia has the third-largest number of registered coronavirus infections at more than 353,400, according to Johns Hopkins University, with over 3,600 deaths.

The country's comparatively low mortality rate has been questioned by experts, with some suggesting the country’s government may be underreporting virus-related deaths and manipulating the statistics.

Meanwhile, the head of Russia's Siberian Republic of Tyva has been hospitalized with the coronavirus.

Sholban Kara-Ool said in a video statement on Instagram on May 25 that he is being treated for COVID-19 at a local hospital in Tyva's capital, Kyzyl.

"The infection is very scary, it affects many parts of your body. Headaches, some have pneumonia.... But the doctors are great, we are fine here," Kara-Ool said, adding that several other officials of the republic are also in hospital with the virus.

Looking tired and sick, Kara-Ool said that he intends to continue working remotely and asked the republic's residents to follow lockdown restrictions to avoid the disease.

Tyva are a Turkic-speaking ethnic group of some 308,000 people, mainly residing in the remote republic on the Russian-Mongolian border.

According to the latest data, 628 coronavirus cases, including one death, were officially registered in Tyva.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu is a native of Tyva.

Montenegro

Montenegro's Institute of Public Health has announced that for the first time in more than two months, the tiny Adriatic country has no confirmed coronavirus infections.

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"It's official: Currently there are no active cases of #COVID19 in Montenegro," the institute said on Twitter. "After 68 days from the first recorded case, Montenegro is currently without patients with COVID-19."

Although it has gone 19 days without registering any new cases, Montenegro has not officially declared an end to the outbreak on its territory.

Senad Begic, from the Institute of Public Health, told RFE/RL that while there were not strict guidelines for declaring an end to an epidemic, epidemiologists generally consider a country virus-free only after no new infections have been found for 28 days.

Montenegro, which has around 630,000 inhabitants, was among the last European states to report a confirmed case and has only reported a total of 324 cases, with nine deaths.

Outbreaks surged in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, but most Balkan countries have generally fared better than many of their neighbors or other European states.

Slovenia became the first country in Europe to declare an end to its COVID-19 epidemic on May 14.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan and Ukrainian services, the Siberia Desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service, IRNA, Tasnim, AFP, and Reuters
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