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New virus cases near 7,000 for 2nd straight day, with over 1 in 8 tests positive

667 patients in serious condition, 164 of them on ventilators; figures come as nation heads into tightened lockdown

A worker from 'Hevra Kadisha,' Israel's official Jewish burial society, prepares a body before a funeral procession at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims in Holon, September 23, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
A worker from 'Hevra Kadisha,' Israel's official Jewish burial society, prepares a body before a funeral procession at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims in Holon, September 23, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The Health Ministry said Thursday morning that 6,808 new virus cases were diagnosed a day earlier, after ministers agreed in a late-night vote to drastically tighten the national lockdown.

It was the second day in a row that the number of new cases neared 7,000.

The ministry said that a notably high 12.9 percent of the tests that came back Wednesday were positive. There were 54,364 tests carried out.

The total number of cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 206,332 with 1,335 deaths.

Of the 56,901 active cases, 667 are in serious condition, 164 of them on ventilators, the ministry said. Another 248 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.

Hospital team members work at the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on September 23, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The announcement came after ministers voted to dramatically tighten the country’s existing coronavirus lockdown amid fears that the infection rate is spiraling out of control.

Beginning Friday at 2 p.m., nearly all businesses will be closed, with the exception of specific companies and factories designated as “vital” by the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority. The decision, drafted Wednesday by the coronavirus cabinet and approved by the full cabinet on Thursday morning, exempted supermarkets and pharmacies from the closure, and allowed restaurants to work on a home delivery basis only.

Yom Kippur prayers that begin Sunday will take place almost entirely outdoors, with groups of up to 10 worshipers permitted to pray inside synagogues, the decision said. The shutdown will also cover the entirety of the Sukkot holiday.

The holiday season is part of the reason the government was imposing the lockdown now, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday. Since most Israelis in any case don’t work during the holidays, the economic damage of the shutdown would be reduced as fewer workdays will be lost.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, wearing face masks during morning prayers in a synagogue separated by plastic partitions, follow new government measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Sept 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Nearly all public transportation will be closed, as will the last educational institutions still open — mainly special education programs and private preschools.

Israelis won’t be allowed to travel more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes. Police will be deployed on highways and at the entrances to cities and towns to ensure Israelis don’t attempt to travel during the lockdown.

The cabinet decision said officials from the Finance Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office and National Security Council will meet to set ground rules for which government agencies will close, which ones will remain operational, and at what capacities.

The cabinet is also reportedly considering closing Ben Gurion Airport to outgoing flights, but the decision was not included in Wednesday’s cabinet vote.

Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The new rules come after a day of acrimonious debates in the cabinet over whether to allow anti-Netanyahu protests during the lockdown, with the Blue and White party insisting a government could not order protests against it to disband. Ministers also argued over how much to restrict prayer gatherings, with Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism pushing to leave synagogues open, even if new limits on numbers of worshipers are imposed.

Under a final compromise reached late Wednesday, synagogues will close beginning Friday, open in a limited capacity and with worshipers divided into small groups for the 25 hours of the Yom Kippur holiday, then close again on Monday night. A similar compromise was reached on protests, under which demonstrators may gather within a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes. In both cases, gatherings may include no more than 20 people at a time who must stay two meters apart.

A special compromise was reached allowing for continued protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, where demonstrators have gathered regularly for months to call for Netanyahu’s resignation.

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