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Turkey tightens controls in public places over virus threat

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Istanbul (AFP)

Turkey stepped up controls Saturday on crowded public spaces including markets and ferries in Istanbul, a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan imposed the use of face masks to curb the coronavirus outbreak.

The death toll in the country of 83 million people has now topped 500, according to official figures published on Saturday, while the number of cases has reached nearly 24,000 -- most of them in the economic capital Istanbul.

From Saturday, all those going out to shops or markets must wear a face mask, Erdogan said, calling on the population to maintain a distance of "three paces" from each other when outside.

At a bazaar in the Besiktas neighbourhood of Istanbul, police and local municipal employees were handing out masks and hand sanitisers, and checking the temperature of customers as they entered.

Vegetable seller Veli Yildirim, 50, said the measures came "too late".

"We are the latest compared to the rest of the world. Even this is not enough, there should be a complete lockdown," he told AFP.

A 60-year-old customer, Asuman Karaman, who was wearing a mask, agreed.

"If these measures had been taken one or two months earlier, maybe the virus would not have been so widespread."

- 'Nothing to do' -

The bazaar was rather calm -- in stark contrast to its usual noisy and crowded state, and vendors complained that their businesses were badly hit.

"This has a big impact, there is no one at the market, at this time of the day, we have nothing to do here," said Abbas Kose, who sells vine leaves.

Vendors were all wearing masks and gloves.

"But still, we have to take and give back change, and the microbes come from the money," Kose said.

At the ferries in Istanbul, passengers were seen wearing face masks. The municipality said Saturday it handed out 100,000 masks only on public transport including in ferries.

It also announced the nostalgic tram that runs from the central Taksim square along the pedestrian Istiklal Street would be suspended from Monday.

The city's mayor Ekrem Imamoglu has been calling for total confinement.

"When we look at what's being done elsewhere in the world, we believe a two or three-week lockdown in Istanbul will be a measure which will reduce the number of cases, and of deaths," he told AFP this week.

But authorities have so far stopped short of a full lockdown.

Among the measures taken nationwide, Turkey has suspended international flights, issued a confinement order for everyone aged under 20 and over 65 and shut schools.

Erdogan also said on Friday that vehicles would no longer be able to leave or enter 31 towns and cities, including Istanbul, for 15 days.

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