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Damage to Israel’s economy estimated to be $12 billion — chief economist

Finance Ministry’s Shira Greenberg expects GDP to fall by $6.6 billion, growth to drop 3% as a result of new measures announced by government to stop virus

A stock market ticker screen in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, in the center of Tel Aviv, March 15, 2020. (Flash90)
A stock market ticker screen in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, in the center of Tel Aviv, March 15, 2020. (Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s events as they unfolded.

Another 37 coronavirus cases reported in Israel; 5 people in serious condition

The Health Ministry reports an additional 37 cases of coronavirus in Israel, bringing the total number up to 250.

Over 90 percent of those who have been infected with the disease — 228 out of 250 — have light symptoms, while 13 people are in moderate condition and five are seriously ill, the ministry says.

Another four people no longer display any symptoms and are recuperating, according to the ministry.

Doctors warn of insufficient protective gear after 18 medical staff catch virus

Doctors complain that they have insufficient protective equipment for treating patients with the deadly coronavirus, after 18 medical professionals contract the disease.

“For days we have been warning of oversights, of protocols and instructions for checks that do not fit with the situation — all of these are leading to infiltrations, ticking time bombs in the wards, where [patients] are being received by teams lacking protective equipment, who are becoming infected and infecting others,” Dr. Rey Biton, of the medical residents organization Mirsham, writes on Facebook.

Of the more than 200 Israelis to have contracted the coronavirus, 18 are medical professionals, most of whom are suspected to have become infected by their patients.

A senior official in the Health Ministry rails against his organization for having failed to ensure a sufficient supply of protective equipment — masks, gloves and hazmat suits — for such an outbreak.

“It is confounding what the Health Ministry has been doing in recent years. If it hasn’t been preparing for things like this — what has it been doing?” he tells the Walla news site, on condition of anonymity.

Lebanon announces 2-week lockdown over coronavirus

Lebanon urges people to stay at home for two weeks and prepares to close its main airport to stem a novel coronavirus outbreak that has killed three people in the country.

The COVID-19 virus has officially infected 99 people in the Mediterranean nation.

Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad orders “citizens to remain at home and not go out except out of extreme necessity” until March 29.

The Beirut international airport will close from Wednesday until that date, during which no one will be allowed in through maritime or land ports either, she says.

Diplomats, UN peacekeepers, employees of international organizations and goods shipments would still be permitted entry, she cites a cabinet decision as saying.

Most institutions and businesses would remain closed. Security forces, health institutions, utilities companies and shops selling food will be exempted.

Lebanon’s novel coronavirus outbreak is the latest crisis to hit a country reeling from a severe economic crunch and mass anti-government protests.

— AFP

Knesset readies for marathon swearing-in sessions for its 120 members-to-be

The Knesset prepares for the suddenly complicated task of swearing in its 120 members-to-be, who were elected earlier this month, in light of Health Ministry restrictions on the size of gatherings.

In place of the usual mass swearing-in ceremony, the Knesset will complete the process in 40 rounds of three lawmakers each, adhering to Health Ministry orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people in an enclosed space.

The process is expected to last throughout much of the day.

IDF says one of the newly diagnosed corona patients is a soldier

The Israel Defense Forces identifies a newly diagnosed coronavirus patient as a career soldier, who contracted the disease from another infected person.

The soldier — identified as Patient 247, out of 250 — is the fifth service member to be diagnosed with the virus.

“An epidemiological study was conducted, and all those who were in close contact with him have been sent to home quarantine. Additional people who were in contact with him are being located now,” the military says.

Peace Corps evacuating volunteers worldwide amid outbreak

WASHINGTON — The Peace Corps is telling its volunteers around the world that it is suspending all operations globally and evacuating all volunteers in light of the spread of the new coronavirus.

In an open letter to volunteers posted Sunday on its website, the federal agency’s director, Jody Olsen, says the decision follows recent evacuations in China and Mongolia due to the outbreak. Olsen says that with evacuations now underway at other posts and travel becoming more challenging by the day, the agency decided to expand the suspension and evacuations.

“As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries,” Olsen says.

Olsen says the posts are not closing and that the agency looks forward to returning to normal operations when conditions permit.

The letter says country directors would be providing more information to volunteers.

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 during the Kennedy administration as a government-run volunteer program serving nations around the world. Its website says volunteers perform community work in more than 60 countries today and that more than 235,000 Americans have served in 141 countries since its inception.

— AP

Senior Iranian cleric dies after contracting coronavirus last week

A senior Iranian cleric has died after contracting the coronavirus last week, media outlets in the country reports.

Ayatollah Sayyid Hashim Bathayi, a member of the Assembly of Experts, a powerful group that chooses the country’s supreme leader, reportedly contracted the disease last week, according to a number of Iranian outlets.

The 78-year-old cleric was one of several Iranian cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials who have been infected.

The outbreak has infected nearly 14,000 people in Iran in total and killed more than 700, with the toll jumping by more than a hundred in the last 24 hours. The real numbers may be even higher, as some have questioned the government’s reporting.

— with AP

France says coronavirus situation ‘deteriorating very fast’

The coronavirus outbreak in France is “very worrying” and “deteriorating very fast,” the head of the country’s health service says.

“The number of cases doubles every three days,” Jerome Salomon says on France Inter.

“I want our citizens to realize that there are people who are sick, who are in intensive care and that (their number) runs into hundreds,” he says.

According to the latest official figures published on Sunday, France has had 127 coronavirus deaths and 5,423 confirmed cases.

That is a jump of 36 deaths and over 900 cases in 24 hours. More than 400 people have been hospitalized in a serious condition.

“There is a real worry that the speed of the outbreak could saturate hospitals and this is something we absolutely want to avoid,” Salomon says, singling out the badly affected eastern region of Alsace near Germany and the greater Paris area.

“Each Frenchman and Frenchwoman must tell themselves every morning: how can I reduce by a third or fourth the number of people I approach?” he says.

“Remain at home, it’s as simple as that.”

— AFP

Baby to born to woman with coronavirus; mother and child separated after birth

A mother and baby are separated immediately after birth after the woman tests positive for the coronavirus in Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, a spokesperson for the medical center says.

The woman had been in home-quarantine and was brought to a specialized isolation unit — away from the normal birthing ward and staffed by two midwives in protective gear — when she went into labor, the hospital spokesperson says.

After the baby was born, tests revealed that the mother, 35, was indeed a carrier of the virus, requiring her to be moved to the hospital’s isolation ward with other coronavirus patients, while the child was taken away.

“The mother is being surrounded by love and warmth from the staff. During her hospitalization, photos of the newborn baby were sent to her, as he was surrounded by love and constant attention. She is even being updated directly by phone by the doctor treating him,” the hospital says.

“There’s no doubt that these are not easy days for her, but it was of the utmost importance that she comes back to her baby when she is healthy and well. Together, we will overcome these complicated and challenging days,” the spokesperson says.

Another doctor contracts coronavirus, amid criticism of insufficient protection

A doctor in Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital has contracted the coronavirus, making him the latest medical professional diagnosed with the disease amid growing claims of insufficient protective gear for doctors and nurses.

As a result of the development, dozens of medical professionals from his urological ward have been put into quarantine, according to Hebrew media reports.

This is the second case of a doctor at Ichilov Hospital becoming infected with the disease.

IDF indicates Iran scaling back terror activity in light of coronavirus

The Israel Defense Forces indicates Iran is curbing its activities in the region as it grapples with a major outbreak of the coronavirus.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman tells reporters that the military has noted a decrease in the amount of terrorist activity in the region by Israel’s enemies, without specifically naming Iran.

Zilberman says there is generally a decrease in the number of military operations across the Middle East in light of the disease.

Iran is among the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus, with hundreds of people killed, including most recently a senior cleric.

IDF rolls out new safety measures as 3,700 troops quarantined, including a general

The Israel Defense Forces announces it is stepping up its restrictions on soldiers in a bid to prevent the coronavirus from affecting the military, preventing troops from leaving so-called “closed bases” and checking the temperature of anyone visiting bases housing sensitive equipment.

IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman tells reporters that roughly 3,700 service members are currently in quarantine, including one major general.

The military has set up specialized communication equipment for the unspecified number of senior officers — colonels and above — who are currently in quarantine.

The 117 lone soldiers — those service members who are not supported financially by their parents or who do not have family in the country — currently in quarantine are being housed at the military’s resort in the coastal town of Givat Olga, Zilberman says.

The spokesman says the IDF’s current main goal is limiting contact between soldiers and civilians and between troops.

To that end, the military is keeping all troops who serve on “closed bases” — generally, training bases and forward outposts — from leaving for at least the next month.

Soldiers serving on “open bases,” who do not sleep on their bases, have largely begun working in shifts in order to ensure that the military’s operations can continue unabated, Zilberman says.

The IDF will also begin taking the temperatures and requiring questionnaires of anyone visiting “critical facilities” in order to ensure they are not displaying symptoms of the virus, he says.

Zilberman says the military is continuing to draft new soldiers as scheduled, but is preparing for the possibility that the outbreak of the virus may affect future enlistments, particularly those scheduled for this summer.

These measures were taken following extensive consultations between the IDF’s top brass and experts in the field of medicine and epidemiology, according to the spokesman.

Roughly 700 reservists have been called up to assist the IDF in its efforts to counter the coronavirus, almost all of them from the IDF Home Front Command.

Rivlin checked for coronavirus; results to be published soon

President Reuven Rivlin has been tested for the coronavirus “as a precautionary measure,” his office says.

The results of his test will be publicized once they are ready.

Government to consider additional restrictions to combat coronavirus — PMO

Senior ministers will meet later today to discuss additional steps that the country may take to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the Prime Minister’s Office says.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Economy Minister Eli Cohen, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich and other senior government officials will take part in the meeting.

Israel has so far restricted, but not fully stopped, public life in the face of the disease.

Though schools and “leisure businesses” like restaurants, cinemas and gyms have been closed, many small businesses remain open and public transportation is still running in most of the country.

Run on toilet paper boggles mind of supermarket chain official

Yossi Shaliv, deputy CEO of the Tiv Ta’am supermarket chain, tells Channel 12 he can’t fathom the weekend run on toilet paper.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in 30 years,” he says, talking from a large store in Ramat Hahayal. “There’s no shortage of anything, and won’t be, except obviously some seasonal produce.”

In stark contrast to Saturday night, when the aisles were packed and people were chasing shopping trolleys, the store looks fairly quiet.

Rivlin formally tasks Gantz with forming government

President Reuven Rivlin formally gives Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz the power to form a government.

Gantz will have 28 days to pull together a coalition of at least 61 votes in his favor or Rivlin can give the task to another politician, likely Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“Fourth elections are not an option,” Rivlin says in his speech.

The decision was made after Gantz received the majority of recommendations for the position by the country’s political parties.

Rivlin notes the “greatness of the hour and the greatness of the challenges facing us,” which he says requires the formation of a government, after two previous rounds of elections failed to result in a majority coalition.

Accepting task of forming government, Gantz says he’ll try to form one in days

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz accepts President Reuven Rivlin’s task of forming the next government, saying he will try to do so within a few days.

Gantz says he will do whatever is necessary to form a “wide, national government” quickly.

“I will serve the voters of all of the parties and all the citizens of Israel. I will lead the effort to heal the society from the corona illness, as well as from the illness of division and hatred,” he says.

In his speech at the President’s Residence, Gantz criticizes what he says are efforts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid standing trial for the charges filed against him.

Bennett tells civil servants to ‘break the rules’ if necessary to fight coronavirus

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett calls on civil servants to “break the rules” and “cut corners” if necessary in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

“We are in an emergency and need to work at top speed in order to get ahead of the coronavirus at any cost. Therefore: If you need, intentionally break the rules! Cut corners,” Bennett says.

The defense minister echoed comments made by World Health Organization official Mike Ryan yesterday, who warned that authorities should work quickly rather striving for perfection.

Bennett says civil servants should purchase whatever equipment is necessary to combat the virus without having to go through the normal channels of ensuring the lowest costs.

“If you are convinced something needs to be done, don’t hesitate. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. We all will make mistakes. This is a new situation that we don’t understand. The worst mistake you can make is doing nothing,” he says.

Western Wall rabbi urges worshipers not to kiss stones at holy site

The Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz urges worshipers not to kiss the stones at the holy site as authorities try to control the coronavirus outbreak.

The rabbi’s request comes after consultations with health officials, the Ynet news site reports.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation emphasizes that the plaza remains open, with checks to ensure groups of visitors do not exceed the limit of 10 people mandated by the government in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

Worshipers are also made to keep a distance of 2 meters between themselves, in line with public safety recommendations.

Gantz phones leaders of Yisrael Beytenu and Labor-Gesher-Meretz, vows to form broad coalition

The Blue and White party says its chairman Benny Gantz phoned the leaders of the Labor-Gesher-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu parties shortly before receiving the mandate to form the next government from President Reuven Rivlin.

He told Amir Peretz and Avigdor Liberman that he is committed to forming as broad a government as possible to serve all Israeli citizens, the party says in a statement.

Gantz phones Bennett, who vows not to meet Blue and White chief until he renounces Joint List

Gantz also phones Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, after being formally tasked by President Reuven Rivlin with forming the next government.

Like with Liberman and Gantz, Gantz tells Bennett he is committed to forming as broad a government as possible to deal with the current challenges Israel is facing, according to a statement from Blue and White.

“Gantz invited Bennett to meet and told him he is willing to assist him in his position as much as needed at this time,” the statement says.

Bennett, who heads the national-religious Yamina party, responds that he won’t meet with Gantz until the Blue and White chief renounces the support of the majority-Arab Joint List, a statement from the defense minister says.

The Yamina leader also calls on Gantz to immediately join a “national emergency government” led by Netanyahu to deal with the coronavirus outbreak, “after which the political system will return to the present situation.”

Bennett was appointed as defense minister by Netanyahu in November, a move members of the premier’s Likud party have acknowledged was aimed at keeping him from joining a Gantz-led coalition after the previous round of elections.

Spain becomes 4th most coronavirus-infected nation

Spain has become the fourth most virus-infected country in the world, surpassing South Korea with a sharp curve of contagion, and closing its borders is a “real possibility” being considered.

The topic will be discussed by European Union members today, according to the country’s interior minister.

Coronavirus cases in Spain rise by roughly 1,000 cases in 24 hours to 8,744 today, and the number of fatalities reaches 297.

Minister Fernando Grande Marlaska says a total lockdown could be the next step, after deploying the army to the streets and to clean train stations, ordering 46 million to stay at home and taking over control of private hospitals.

Portugal and Spain have already agreed to halt tourism across their 1,200-kilometer (750-mile) shared border. Goods and workers will still be allowed in and out. About half of the deaths have been in the capital, Madrid.

— AP

Gantz phones United Torah Judaism’s Litzman, who refuses to meet him

Gantz now phones Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, to tell him he plans to form as broad a government as possible.

Gantz invites Litzman to meet and and offers to help as much as possible regarding the coronavirus, but the UTJ leader refuses to meet with him at this stage, a Blue and White statement says.

Iran reports 129 new virus deaths, a single day record for country

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran says today that the novel coronavirus has killed 129 more people, a new record high for a single day in one of the world’s worst-hit countries.

“Our plea is that everyone take this virus seriously and in no way attempt to travel to any province,” health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour says in a televised news conference.

The latest deaths bring the overall toll to 853 fatalities since February 19, when the government announced Iran’s first two deaths from the COVID-19 disease.

Jahanpour also reports 1,053 confirmed new cases of infection in the past 24 hours, raising the total to 14,991.

— AFP

People wait in line to receive packages of gear against the coronavirus provided by the Basij militia, outside Meydane Valiasr metro station in the capital Tehran on March 15, 2020. (Stringer/AFP)

Deri also turns down Gantz offer to meet, says he’s ‘represented by the bloc’

Gantz now calls Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and reiterates his commitment to forming a broad government.

He also invites Deri to meet.

“The minister responded that he is represented by [Netanyahu’s right-wing] bloc,” a Blue and White statement says.

French judges order charges against 20 in 2015 Paris attacks

PARIS — French judges investigating the 2015 Islamic State attacks that left 130 people dead in Paris have ordered charges against 20 people, including a Belgian accused of masterminding the attacks who was held for years in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq before being freed and returned home.

Three of the group, including the alleged mastermind, Oussama Atar, are believed to have died in the jihadist group’s final months of fighting in Iraq and Syria.

Also accused is the only survivor of the Paris cell, Salah Abdeslam, who was arrested near his home in Brussels after months on the run. Abdeslam’s brother, Brahim, blew himself up in Paris.

Of the 20, 11 are jailed, three are under house arrest and six face international arrest warrants.

All are charged with terrorism offenses. Atar is charged as the leader.

The November 13, 2015, attacks were linked to March 2016 bombings in Brussels.

— AP

Health Ministry said pushing for full shutdown of economy

The Health Ministry is urging Prime Minister Netanyahu to order a full shutdown of the economy to curb the spread of the coronavirus, according to Hebrew media reports.

Quoting unnamed senior officials, Channel 13 news says Netanyahu has yet to decide on taking such a course of action due to concerns over the economic consequences.

Israel has limited public gatherings to 10 people, ordered the closure of places of leisure and implored workers who can do say to work at home to contain the virus, but many small businesses remain open.

Coronavirus brings France to a standstill; Macron mulls further measures

PARIS — Many streets in French cities are desolate today as schools, cafes and a range of businesses were shuttered on government orders, as France’s President Emmanuel Macron weighs additional measures to contain a fast-escalating coronavirus outbreak.

While many people work from home to avoid potential germ-spreading encounters or look after their children, others throng supermarkets to stock up on essentials in case of a prolonged lockdown.

France has shuttered non-essential businesses in a bid to curb the spread of the virus that had infected more than 5,000 in the country by Sunday and killed 127 — a jump of 900 cases and 36 deaths in 24 hours.

More than 400 people are in the hospital in serious condition, causing fears of hospitals being overrun.

The country is also limiting long-distance train and plane travel and some domestic public transportation.

Macron’s office and the government deny widely circulating rumors of an imminent curfew and home confinement for all residents, a step already taken by neighbors Spain and Italy.

Macron, who maintained a first round of nationwide municipal elections that took place Sunday despite widespread contagion fear, is discussing additional measures with senior government officials and leaders of Europe and the rest of the G7 nations, the presidency says.

An announcement on EU border control measures would follow “in the coming hours,” the Elysee Palace says, ahead of a televised address this evening.

— AFP

Greece imposes 14-day quarantine on anyone entering country

Greece is imposing a compulsory 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the country and extending shop closures to fight the spread of the coronavirus.

So far, all restaurants, bar and cafes have already shut down, except for deliveries and take-aways. Deputy government spokeswoman Aristotelia Peloni says the expanded closures as of Wednesday will not affect supermarkets, pharmacies, banks or gas stations.

Peloni also says people are required to maintain a two-meter distance from each other in supermarket lines and to avoid cash payments by using credit or debit cards.

He says Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and his family have tested negative for the virus. Greece has 331 infected and four deaths.

— AP

Number of coronavirus cases in Israel jumps to 344

The Health Ministry says 344 Israelis have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, including eight tourists, a major jump in the number of confirmed cases.

Earlier today, the ministry said that 255 people were known to have contracted the disease.

The jump appears to come from an increase in the number of tests performed by health authorities.

According to the ministry, 8,571 people have been tested.

The ministry later says the number it sent out was not accurate and that it will issue a correction soon.

— Judah Ari Gross

Ministry says update on coronavirus cases not accurate due to app problem

The Health Ministry says due to a problem with its app, the update on the number of coronavirus it just reported is not accurate.

The ministry says it will send out a corrected number soon.

Rivlin arrives at Knesset for swearing-in ceremony

President Reuven Rivlin arrives at the Knesset for today’s swearing-in ceremony.

Rivlin is welcomed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. The two do not shake hands, as part of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Opening new Knesset, Rivlin implores political leaders to ‘give this people a government’

President Reuven Rivlin opens the 23rd Knesset with an address to the only three lawmakers present — Prime Minister Netanyahu, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein.

After three consecutive elections, Rivlin says Israelis are “exhausted” from politics.

“We are looking forward to the day-to-day, the routine, when we will all return to what we have in common, our shared fate that is expressed so clearly in the current crisis,” he says, referring to the outbreak of the virus.

Disinfecting the Knesset ahead of the swearing in of MKs amid the coronavirus crisis, March 16, 2020 (Knesset spokeswoman)

The president implores political leaders to compromise.

“Politics is far from perfect. But politics is meant to be the art of the possible. Often, politics needs to be the art of compromise… At the heart of democracy lies the understanding that what often creates the requirement for compromise, to make deep and painful concessions, is the will of the people itself,” he says.

Rivlin continues: “The current political crisis is very real, very deep and is breaking us in two. And we still have no other choice, because we have no other people and no other country. In democracy, we may be able to replace the leadership, but we cannot replace the people. Not some of it, not one half of it and not the other half of it. We were destined to live together.”

He says he has one request of political leaders. “Give this people a government,” he implores.

Lawmakers begin taking oath in batches of 3 at a time

After Edelstein, Netanyahu and Gantz are sworn in, lawmakers are brought into the Knesset plenum in batches of three for their swearing-in.

The lawmakers are taking their oaths in alphabetical order.

Yisrael Beytenu files bill that would force Netanyahu to resign over graft charges

As Knesset members are still being sworn in, Yisrael Beytenu MK Oded Forer files a bill that would compel the head of a transition government to resign if indicted, which would require Prime Minister Netanyahu to resign if passed.

Gantz phones Joint List’s Odeh, vows to form coalition ‘that will serve all citzens’

Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz phones Ayman Odeh, leader of the majority-Arab Joint List, after he was tasked earlier today by President Rivlin with forming the next government.

“Gantz told him that Blue and White under his leadership is committed to forming a government that will serve all citizens of the State of Israel,” a statement from Blue and White says.

Unlike after Gantz’s other phone calls with party chiefs, the statement doesn’t say if the Blue and White chief invited Odeh to meet.

White House moves to protect Trump, staff against coronavirus

WASHINGTON — The White House puts in place new measures today to protect US President Donald Trump and his staff during the coronavirus outbreak, including taking the temperature of anyone who enters the complex, such as visitors and members of the press corps.

The steps expanded on screenings the White House began on Saturday for anyone who gets close to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is leading the administration’s response to the virus.

Officials greet staff, reporters and camera workers by swiping their foreheads with a temporal thermometer. Only those with a reading of 99.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37.6 degrees Celsius) or less are allowed entry into the complex.

“In order to keep the entire White House complex safe and healthy, beginning Monday morning, temperature checks will be conducted on everyone who enters campus,” spokesman Judd Deere says.

Inside the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, an orange sign taped to the back of many seats lets reporters know that it is to remain unoccupied during briefings to ensure social distancing. The White House Correspondents’ Association calls on all members to stay home or work remotely if they can do so and to keep a bare level of staffing at the White House.

“We understand these restrictions are deeply disruptive to our members and their ability to do their jobs. But we are forced to take these steps to do our part to ensure that there is a healthy pool available to cover the president and inform the public during this critical time,” the association’s board says in an overnight email to members.

— AP

Likud minister at Knesset despite being told to stay away due to concerns of virus exposure

Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi is at the Knesset for the swearing-in ceremony, despite Hebrew media reports saying he was told to keep away over concerns he was in contact with someone suspected to have the coronavirus.

According to Channel 12 news, Hanegbi was in the presence of a man whose wife is confirmed to have the virus.

Lawmakers had their temperatures taken when they entered the Knesset, suggesting Hanegbi doesn’t have a fever as he was let into the building.

Minister responds about being asked to stay away from the Knesset swearing-in

Likud Minister Tzachi Hanegbi issues a response after it emerges he attended the swearing-in ceremony at the Knesset, despite being told to stay away over concerns he was in contact with someone who may have the coronavirus.

Hanegbi says he stayed in his office after arriving at the Knesset and kept a distance from other people when he was sworn in. After taking his oath, he left the Knesset.

Along with Blue and White MKs Ram Ben-Barak and Alon Shuster, Hanegbi was at an agricultural conference where a man whose wife is confirmed to have the virus was present. Neither Ben-Barak or Shuster was at the swearing-in ceremony.

“During the evening the head of the Knesset Guard will inform the Knesset members what arose with the test of the man at the aforementioned conference,” Hanegbi is quoted saying by the Walla news site.

Blue and White vows to go to High Court if no vote to choose Knesset speaker

The Blue and White party sends a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein informing him it’ll appeal to the High Court of Justice if he blocks a vote on electing the next Knesset speaker.

Edelstein said yesterday he would prevent Blue and White from convening the Knesset to vote on replacing him, claiming it would doom talks on a unity government between Likud and Blue and White.

The letter says that Edelstein “has no authority to stop the convening” of the Knesset and that his decision was motivated by a personal interest to remain Knesset speaker.

Gaining control of the Knesset would allow parties opposed to Netanyahu and his bloc of 58 right-wing religious MKs more power to advance legislation, such as a bill that would prevent a lawmaker under indictment from forming a government — which would prevent Netanyahu from doing so.

Health minister says weighing lockdown of community with high number of virus cases

Health Ministry Yaakov Litzman says the government is considering imposing a lockdown of a community in Israel where there have been a large number of coronavirus cases.

“There’s a certain place in Israel where there is large number of [virus] cases. We’re weighing a closure of one community,” he tells Army Radio.

Litzman doesn’t name the place, but Hebrew media identifies it as Kiryat Ye’arim, also known as Telz-Stone, an ultra-Orthodox town near Jerusalem.

More virus cases, deaths now reported in the rest of world than in China — WHO

GENEVA — There have now been more COVID-19 cases and deaths in the rest of the world than in China, the World Health Organization says.

“More cases and deaths have now been reported in the rest of the world than in China,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tells reporters today in Geneva, without providing the latest numbers.

According to an AFP tally based on official sources, more than 169,710 cases have been recorded in 142 countries and territories. The death toll stood at 6,640.

The worst affected countries in terms of fatalities are mainland China, with 3,213 deaths, Italy with 1,809 deaths, Iran with 853 and Spain with 297.

— AFP

WHO urges countries to test every suspected case of coronavirus

GENEVA — The World Health Organization calls for every single suspected case of COVID-19 to be tested in a bid to halt the deadly pandemic.

“You cannot fight a fire blindfolded,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tells reporters in Geneva, saying the WHO recommended that countries “test, test, test. Test every suspected case.”

— AFP

Likud rages at Blue and White over bills that would prevent Netanyahu from forming coalition

Likud reacts to a series of Blue and White bills that would prevent Prime Minister Netanyahu from assembling a coalition by accusing the rival party of “hindering” negotiations to form a unity government.

“Blue and White’s behavior is hindering the negotiations right from the get-go,” Likud says. “It is malicious and irresponsible and comes during a national and international crisis” — a reference to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Outwardly they are presenting a facade as if they are willing to form a unity government, and in practice they are promoting personal, anti-democratic and retroactive laws with the sole purpose of thwarting the will of over 2.5 million citizens,” the party adds. “Such things aren’t even done in Iran or Turkey. That is not how you behave if you really want to achieve unity.”

Coronavirus vaccine test begins as US volunteer gets 1st shot

SEATTLE — US researchers give the first shot to the first person in a test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine — leading off a worldwide hunt for protection even as the pandemic surges.

With a careful jab in a healthy volunteer’s arm, scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle begin today an anxiously awaited first-stage study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed in record time after the new virus exploded from China and fanned across the globe.

“We’re team coronavirus now,” Kaiser Permanente study leader Dr. Lisa Jackson said on the eve of the experiment. “Everyone wants to do what they can in this emergency.”

The Associated Press observes as the study’s first participant, an operations manager at a small tech company, receives the injection inside an exam room. Several others are next in line for a test that will ultimately give 45 volunteers two doses, a month apart.

“We all feel so helpless. This is an amazing opportunity for me to do something,” says Jennifer Haller, 43, of Seattle.

Today’s milestone marks just the beginning of a series of studies in people needed to prove whether the shots are safe and could work. Even if the research goes well, a vaccine wouldn’t be available for widespread use for 12 to 18 months, said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the US National Institutes of Health. That’s still important if the virus becomes a long-term threat.

This vaccine candidate, code-named mRNA-1273, was developed by the NIH and Massachusetts-based biotechnology company Moderna Inc. There’s no chance participants could get infected from the shots because they don’t contain the coronavirus itself.

— AP

IDF readies hotels to house coronavirus patients with light symptoms

The head of the military’s Home Front Command says his unit is preparing to open a Tel Aviv hotel that it converted into a quarantine facility for carriers of the coronavirus who have only light symptoms.

Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai says that Tel Aviv’s Dan Hotel will open for patients shortly, followed hours later by Jerusalem’s Dan Hotel (formerly the Hyatt).

These two hotels are among four that Defense Minister Naftali Bennett called on the military to open for coronavirus-carriers, in what he said was an effort to relieve some of the burden on the nation’s hospitals.

The other two hotel-hospitals — one in northern Israel and one in the south — are due to open in the coming days.

Each of them is designed to hold roughly 500 people, with the capacity to hold up to 2,000 if necessary.

Yadai, in a calm, low voice, tells reporters that while the situation is serious, “now is not the time to panic.”

The general says his unit has also been working closely with civilian authorities to prepare for the pandemic, which has infected upwards of 250 Israelis as of Monday.

Roughly 700 Home Front Command reservists have been called up toward that effort, with plans to bring in another 1,300 in the coming days.

Several hundred of these have been working to develop new educational and instructional materials about the coronavirus. Yadai says the Home Front Command plans to open a dedicated website about the disease and a national informational hotline in the coming days.

The Home Front Command, which is tasked with defending its namesake, has also been preparing to step in and assist civilian authorities in conducting coronavirus tests in the “drive-in” model that was first adopted by South Korea, Yadai says.

The unit is also preparing to take over Israel’s supply lines if necessary to ensure that those in quarantine have access to food and medicine — as well as the general public if the situation gets bad enough to disrupt the flow of goods nationwide.

— Judah Ari Gross

Ex-head of Health Ministry says 2 firms refusing to provide chemical solution for virus tests

A former director-general of the Health Ministry says that 20 million swabs used in testing for the coronavirus are en route to Israel.

But Gabi Barbash says two Israeli companies are refusing to provide the chemical solution needed for the tests due to “commercial considerations.”

He threatens to name the companies if they do not reverse themselves by tomorrow.

Man with coronavirus tries to break out of quarantine at hospital

A man infected with the coronavirus tries to escape from quarantine at the hospital where he is receiving treatment.

Wolfson Medical Center in Holon says the patient was diagnosed with the virus after returning from Austria.

“After four days of hospitalization, he violently broke the window and burst through the doors of the quarantine room,” the hospital says in a statement. “After police forces arrived and with the help of the dedicated hospital staff, the patient was returned to his room, and afterward was brought to the quarantine department that was opened at the hospital.”

The hospital says attempts to violate quarantine endanger the medical staff and other patients.

Italy reports 349 new virus deaths, bringing total to over 2,000

ROME — Italy reports 349 new deaths today from the novel coronavirus, taking its total since last month to 2,158, the most after China.

The number of official COVID-19 fatalities has more than doubled since Thursday, when Italy’s toll topped 1,000 for the first time. Italy now has 27,980 infections, compared to 15,113 four days ago.

— AFP

A woman looks at the Rome skyline from the Gianicolo promenade on March 16, 2020. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP)

Rivlin tests negative for coronavirus

Tests for the coronavirus given to President Reuven Rivlin and his staff have all come back negative, his office says.

Switzerland declares state of emergency over coronavirus

Switzerland’s government has declared a state of emergency, ordering shops, restaurants, bars and other facilities to be shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The measures exclude health care operations and supermarkets, but include entertainment and leisure facilities, which will be closed until April 19.

“We need to do everything possible to slow the advance of the coronavirus,” Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga says, urging people to practice social distancing and follow government guidelines.

The nation, which had already implemented border controls on people coming from risk areas, extends them to include checks on the borders with Germany, Austria and France.

The government approves the use of up to 8,000 members of the military to help in hospitals, as well as where needed with logistics and security.

— AP

Police set up unit for enforcing Health Ministry directives on virus

The Israel Police announces the establishment of a special command unit that will be tasked with enforcing Health Ministry directives relating to the coronavirus.

“Always remember that this is a national emergency and the responsibility is on us to be on the frontlines and help with protecting the well-being, security and health of Israeli citizens,” acting police commissioner Motti Cohen is quoted as saying in a statement.

Number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel rises to 277

The Health Ministry says there are now 277 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Israel, 22 more than earlier today.

Global coronavirus death toll passes 7,000 — AFP

PARIS — The number of deaths around the world linked to the new coronavirus has topped 7,000, after Italy announced a new surge in fatalities, according to an AFP tally today.

A total of 7,007 people have died, with a 175,536 infections recorded globally.

China has the highest number of fatalities at 3,213, followed by Italy, with 2,158 deaths and almost 28,000 cases.

— AFP

Germany bans events in synagogues, mosques, and churches to curb spread of virus

BERLIN — German leaders urge citizens to stay home, as the government announces unprecedented nationwide measures to radically scale back public life in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Chancellor Angela Merkel calls on Germans to cancel any holidays at home and abroad, while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier tells people to “stay at home.”

The government bans gatherings in churches, mosques, and synagogues, and orders non-essential shops, as well as playgrounds, shut.

At a press conference in Berlin, Merkel says that under the new measures, “There shouldn’t be any holiday trips undertaken inside the country or outside it.”

“There have never been measures like this in our country before. They are far-reaching, but at the moment they are necessary.”

— AFP

Netanyahu expected to announce new restrictions to curb virus

Prime Minister Netanyahu will soon give a televised statement, during which he is expected to announce new restrictions aimed at fighting the coronavirus.

US health agency looking into cyber incident

The lead US agency handling the coronavirus outbreak says it is investigating a potential cyber incident.

Federal agencies are under continual cyberattack, and the Department of Health and Human Services says in a statement today that it had put extra protections in place as it prepared to deal with the coronavirus.

Spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley says in a statement that yesterday the department “became aware of a significant increase in activity on HHS cyber infrastructure and are fully operational as we actively investigate the matter.”

HHS says it is coordinating with federal law enforcement to find out what happened.

— AP

Netanyahu announces new measures to curb virus, including digital tracking

Netanyahu begins delivering a televised statement from the Prime Minister’s Office on the new coronavirus.

The premier says the government will approve “emergency” measures allowing it to use special digital tracking means to follow people who have the virus, and alert those who have been in close contact with them for 10 minutes or more to enter quarantine. The measure will be approved tonight for 30 days, he says. There was a 6-hour debate to ensure the intrusive measure is properly used, he adds. “Israel is a democracy,” he stresses, and the the needs of the individual have to be balanced with the wider public good.

He says public sector workplaces will move to an “emergency framework” and that private firms will reduce their economic activity. These measures will be in place until Passover.

He also says essential services will continue to operate.

Netanyahu adds that Israel is not imposing a general lockdown, but may close off specific areas with high instances of the virus.

Netanyahu: Public transportation to continue, but there will be changes

Netanyahu says that public transportation will continue, but there will be some changes, without elaborating.

Israel to ease conditions for receiving unemployment benefits, give grants to small business

Speaking after Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon announces a number of measures to assist Israelis economically amid the coronavirus outbreak.

These include easing the conditions for receiving unemployment benefits and grants to small businesses.

Macron orders French to stay home, says EU will shut external borders

French President Emmanuel Macron orders people to stay at home from midday tomorrow, except for necessary reasons, such as shopping, and says any violations of the stricter rules to battle the coronavirus will be punished.

In a 20-minute address to the nation, he says the French have to “severely restrict movements for the next 15 days at least” and limit social contacts as much as possible. Any violation of this new regime will be “punished,” he says.

Macron, who repeatedly says France is “at war” with the virus, also announces that the second round of local elections due to be held on March 22 will be postponed. He adds that the EU has agreed to shut its external borders for the next 30 days.

— AFP

Public sector to emergency footing; private sector to dilute workforces by 70%

The key new measures to combat the coronavirus specified by Netanyahu are as follows:

  • No national lockdown, but local lockdowns in areas with high incidence of coronavirus contagion;
  • Public sector to move to an emergency framework — from now until after Passover, with reduced staff at offices, and the rest of the workforce sent home;
  • Private sector to move to a reduced framework, with a 70% diminished staff coming to work, — as of Tuesday morning. Firms with 10 or fewer staff to continue as they have been, provided that workers maintain the two-meters-apart “social distancing” rule;
  • Essential services to continue as usual, including supermarkets;
  • Unspecified changes to public transport.

Russia to seal off borders to foreigners over virus

The Russian government says it will close all its borders to foreign citizens this week, with the exception of permanent residents, because of the coronavirus.

The measure is announced in a statement from Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin.

He says that the measure, due to come into effect at midnight (local time) and run until May 1, is aimed at protecting public health in Russia, which has so far recorded 93 cases of the disease.

— AFP

White House encourages people to stay home, avoid gatherings of more than 10

The White House is recommending that older people in the US and those with underlying health conditions “stay home and away from other people,” as it continues to step up efforts to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The White House is laying out the steps that it is encouraging Americans to take, as part of a campaign that it is calling, “15 days to slow the spread.”

Officials recommend that large swaths of the population isolate themselves and everyone avoid social gatherings or groups of more than 10 people.

They also want Americans to work from home if possible, avoid eating or drinking in bars and restaurants, and “avoid discretionary travel, shopping trips, and social visits.”

The White House is also advising governors in US states with evidence of community transmission to close schools, and says that states with evidence of community spread should close restaurants, bars, gyms, and other venues where people gather.

— AP

Trump says pandemic could end in US by July, recession possible

US President Donald Trump says the coronavirus pandemic that has killed thousands and brought life in countries across the world grinding to a halt could end by July in the United States.

“So it seems to me that if we do a really good job… people are talking about July, August, something like that,” Trump tells reporters at the White House when asked how long the outbreak might last.

“So it could be right in that period of time where it, I say, it washes through.”

Trump says the US “may be” heading into a recession due to the virus.

— AFP

Number of COVID-19 patients in Israel up to 298 — Health Ministry

The Health Ministry says there are now 298 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Israel, an increase of 21 over the last reported number and 43 more than was reported just several hours ago.

UN Security Council halts meetings due to coronavirus pandemic

The UN Security Council’s Chinese presidency has canceled the body’s two final meetings scheduled this week, due to the coronavirus crisis, diplomatic sources say.

After an earlier cancellation of a meeting planned for today, the Security Council was planning to discuss the situation of Darfur in Sudan on Wednesday, and address multilateralism on Thursday.

While the Chinese delegation has not publicly announced the move, diplomats from other countries have confirmed the decision.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric tells journalists that a positive COVID-19 case was identified among staff at the UN secretariat, after a Philippines diplomat was reported infected last week.

The United Nations building remains open, and Secretary General Antonio Guterres is in his office today, according to Dujarric.

But the number of people entering the building in New York city has shrunk: only some 900 people, rather than the normal several thousand per day, he says.

— AFP

Taglit-Birthright delays May trips, will place some staff on unpaid leave

Taglit-Birthright announces that it is further scaling back its operations amid the coronavirus pandemic.

According to an email by the organization’s CEO, Gidi Mark, sent to committee members, all trips to Israel planned for May have been delayed. Earlier trips were already called off before today.

“We will encourage them to change their trip date to a later month this summer,” he writes.

Mark also says Taglit will place some of its staff on unpaid leave starting April 1, without specifying how many employees that will affect.

2 more nursing home residents in Jerusalem diagnosed with COVID-19

Two more residents at the Nofim nursing home in Jerusalem are diagnosed with the new coronavirus, bringing the total number to eight — five workers and three residents, all of whom have been hospitalized.

The facility is on lockdown, with reduced staff and with other residents quarantined in their rooms to prevent a further outbreak.

Trump says US army could be asked to build temporary hospitals

US President Donald Trump says he might ask the military to help build temporary hospitals to tackle the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

Asked if the Army Corps of Engineers will build emergency hospitals, Trump says “We’re looking into it… we’re looking into it very strongly.”

— AFP

Dow plunges 12.9% in worst day since 1987, as virus freezes economy

Wall Street stocks joins the global market carnage as a widening part of the US and global economy shuts down due to the coronavirus crisis, in its worst day since 1987.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average plunges 12.9 percent, or nearly 3,000 points, at 20,188.52.

The broad-based S&P 500 dives 11.2% to 9,637.34, while the tech-rich Nasdaq Composite Index sheds 12.3% to 6,904.59.

— AFP

Trump says postponing US elections ‘unnecessary’

US President Donald Trump says postponing elections over the coronavirus crisis is “unnecessary,” even as Ohio’s governor calls for the state’s presidential primary vote scheduled for tomorrow to be delayed.

“Postponing elections is not a very good thing,” Trump tells reporters at the White House. “I think postponing is unnecessary.”

Three other states voting Tuesday — Arizona, Florida and Illinois — are scheduled to hold primaries, which select party candidates to contest the presidential election in November, when Trump hopes to win a second term.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, on March 16, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

— AFP

Coronavirus steps expected to cause $12 billion loss to Israel’s economy

The Finance Ministry’s chief economist, Shira Greenberg, estimates that the damage to Israel’s economy resulting from the far-reaching steps announced tonight by the government to contain the coronavirus will be NIS 45 billion ($12 billion).

Shira Greenberg, chief economist of the Finance Ministry, attends a press conference at the Finance Ministry office in Jerusalem, September 23, 2019. (Flash90)

The gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to drop by NIS 25 billion ($6.6 billion).

While cautioning that there is currently great uncertainty regarding the future impact of the pandemic on the global market, Greenberg says the growth in Israel’s economy is estimated to drop by three percent, reducing the state’s revenue by 1.2%.

Jerusalem mayor says all entry of Palestinians from West Bank should be halted

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion urges the government to immediately close all crossings between the capital and Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, in order to contain the coronavirus.

If that is not done, Lion tells the Kan public broadcaster, “there is no point in all the steps that are being taken” to curb the spread of the virus.

Gaza still free of coronavirus, Hamas health ministry says

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says six people who returned to the Strip from abroad were tested today for the coronavirus and the results were negative.

“We stress that Gaza is still clean of coronavirus,” the ministry says.

Transportation Ministry announces curbs on buses, trains

The Transportation Ministry announces changes and limitations in public transportation that will take effect tomorrow as part of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus.

Bus and train lines primarily transporting passengers to businesses, supermarkets and medical centers will operate normally, while lines to leisure venues, schools and universities will be canceled.

Payment directly to the drivers will be completely halted, with payment done only via the Rav Kav electronic card. Drivers and operators are instructed to ensure no bus or train is crowded and passengers are requested to keep a distance from the drivers and from one another.

The ministry says there has been a drop of about 50% in the number of passengers in recent days, and expects that to drop further.

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Germany bans events in synagogues, mosques, and churches to curb spread of virus

BERLIN — German leaders urge citizens to stay home, as the government announces unprecedented nationwide measures to radically scale back public life in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Chancellor Angela Merkel calls on Germans to cancel any holidays at home and abroad, while President Frank-Walter Steinmeier tells people to “stay at home.”

The government bans gatherings in churches, mosques, and synagogues, and orders non-essential shops, as well as playgrounds, shut.

At a press conference in Berlin, Merkel says that under the new measures, “There shouldn’t be any holiday trips undertaken inside the country or outside it.”

“There have never been measures like this in our country before. They are far-reaching, but at the moment they are necessary.”

— AFP