MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has postponed an April 22 vote on sweeping constitutional changes that could allow him to remain in power until 2036 because of concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.
Speaking in a live television broadcast on March 25, Putin said a new date for balloting will be determined based on the recommendations of health experts.
The presidential website later said Putin had signed a decree postponing the national vote.
The decision was made "to avoid endangering the health of Russian citizens due to an unfavorable epidemiological situation," the decree reads.
Russians were scheduled to vote on the package of amendments to the constitution, the most substantive changes to the document since its adoption 27 years ago.
Weeks after the plan to amend the constitution was announced in January, Putin signaled support for another change -- one that would allow him to seek reelection in 2024 and potentially remain president until 2036.
Putin said that the government didn't want Russians except those working in essential sectors, to come to work next week, though stores, pharmacies, and banks will stay open.
"The health, life, and safety of the people is an absolute priority for us," Putin said.
Putin's comments came after the government reported 658 infections, up from 495 a day before, a rise Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova said was almost three times higher than the previous average of confirmed cases.
"There are currently 658 cases in 55 regions of Russia. Twenty-nine people have recovered. A total of 112,000 people are being monitored in self-isolation," Golikova told a meeting of the country's federal coronavirus operative response group that is coordinating the fight against the coronavirus.
The same number appeared on the government's official website dedicated to the coronavirus outbreak in Russia.
Earlier in the day Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin ordered provincial governors to move at a quicker pace to provide hospital beds for coronavirus patients.
Unlike other countries, Russia has not yet ordered citizens to remain at home as much possible.
In his address, Putin also urged Russians to help each other and follow instructions given by medics and the authorities.
"All measures that are being taken and will be taken will work, will have results if we show unity and understanding of the difficulty of the current situation," he said.
"The strength of society consists of this solidarity," Putin said.
Until the virus outbreak, many Russians had been focusing on the sweeping constitutional changes that under current law, Putin wouldn't be able to run for president again in 2024 because of term limits.
A new measure would reset his term count, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms if he chooses.
Other constitutional changes further strengthen the presidency and emphasize the priority of Russian law over international norms.
With reporting by Reuters and Interfax