Is­rael tight­ens sec­ond lock­down as virus cases soar

Arab News - - News Middle East - AP Jerusalem

Is­rael on Thurs­day moved to fur­ther tighten its sec­ond coun­try­wide lock­down as coro­n­avirus cases con­tin­ued to soar, or­der­ing all nonessen­tial busi­nesses to close and re­quir­ing peo­ple to stay within 1,000 me­ters of their homes. Prayers dur­ing the on­go­ing Jewish High Hol­i­days, as well as po­lit­i­cal demon­stra­tions, are limited to open spa­ces and no more than 20 peo­ple, and par­tic­i­pants must re­main within the re­stricted dis­tance from home. The mea­sures are set to go into force on Fri­day af­ter­noon, as the coun­try shuts down for the weekly Sab­bath ahead of the solemn hol­i­day of Yom Kip­pur on Sun­day and Mon­day. Even dur­ing nor­mal times, Is­rael com­pletely shuts down for Yom Kip­pur, with busi­nesses and air­ports closed, roads empty, and even ra­dio and tele­vi­sion sta­tions go­ing silent.

The re­stric­tions on demon­stra­tions are sub­ject to ap­proval by the Knes­set, Is­rael’s par­lia­ment, and the lim­its on both prayers and protests could spark a back­lash. An anti-lock­down demon­stra­tion was planned for later in the day in front of the Knes­set.

Is­rael’s po­lit­i­cally in­flu­en­tial ul­tra­Ortho­dox com­mu­nity has ob­jected to lim­its on public prayer dur­ing the on­go­ing Jewish High Hol­i­days, and op­po­nents of Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu have ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of us­ing the lock­down as a cover to end weekly demon­stra­tions against his han­dling of the cri­sis.

The gov­ern­ment or­dered syn­a­gogues to close for the lock­down, which is ex­pected to last for at least two weeks, but said they could open with lim­i­ta­tions for prayers on Yom Kip­pur, the holi­est day in the Jewish cal­en­dar.

Ha­gai Levine, a pro­fes­sor of epi­demi­ol­ogy and a mem­ber of an ex­pert panel ad­vis­ing the gov­ern­ment, warned that al­low­ing Yom Kip­pur prayers in syn­a­gogues could lead to mass trans­mis­sion.

He said the gov­ern­ment should in­stead im­pose a com­plete lock­down for a short pe­riod to un­der­score the se­ri­ous­ness of the sit­u­a­tion, fol­lowed by the grad­ual eas­ing of re­stric­tions on es­sen­tial but low-risk ac­tiv­i­ties.

Is­rael is cur­rently re­port­ing nearly 7,000 new daily cases, mak­ing the out­break in the coun­try of 9 mil­lion peo­ple among the worst in the world on a per capita ba­sis.

Is­rael won praise this spring when it swiftly moved to seal its bor­ders and shut down most busi­nesses. By May, its daily rate of new cases had dropped into the dou­ble-dig­its. But then it re­opened the econ­omy too quickly, lead­ing to a surge of new in­fec­tions over the sum­mer. In re­cent months, a na­tional unity gov­ern­ment that was formed to ad­dress the pan­demic has been mired in in­fight­ing, with au­thor­i­ties is­su­ing un­clear and some­times con­tra­dic­tory guide­lines, lead­ing much of the public to dis­re­gard the risk.

Many busi­nesses, mean­while, have yet to re­cover from the ear­lier lock­down, and the new re­stric­tions are ex­pected to take a heavy toll on the econ­omy even though they are

be­ing im­posed dur­ing the hol­i­days, when many busi­nesses would or­di­nar­ily scale back hours.

Is­rael has re­ported a to­tal of more than 200,000 cases since the pan­demic be­gan, in­clud­ing 1,335 deaths. It has more than 50,000 ac­tive cases.

The Health Min­istry says at least 667 peo­ple are hos­pi­tal­ized in se­ri­ous con­di­tion, and in re­cent days health of­fi­cials have warned that hos­pi­tals are rapidly ap­proach­ing full ca­pac­ity.

The gov­ern­ment last week im­posed a na­tion­wide lock­down that closed schools, shop­ping malls, ho­tels and restau­rants, mak­ing Is­rael the first de­vel­oped coun­try to im­pose a sec­ond clo­sure. But the re­stric­tions in­cluded nu­mer­ous ex­cep­tions, in­clud­ing al­low­ing peo­ple to leave their homes for work, ex­er­cise, prayers and public demon­stra­tions.

The new lock­down is ex­pected to elim­i­nate most of those loop­holes.

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