JERUSALEM – Israel announced sweeping new restrictions on Friday in response to a new surge in coronavirus cases, including weekend closures of many businesses and limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery.
The government announced the restrictions after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “interim steps” were needed to avoid another general lockdown. Netanyahu has faced widespread criticism and protests in recent days over his government's handling of the pandemic and the economic fallout from an earlier lockdown.
Gyms and exercise studios will be closed except for use by competitive athletes and beaches will be closed on weekends, beginning later this month. The Israeli weekend is Friday and Saturday.
Restaurants were initially ordered to halt seated dining by Friday evening, but the government later backtracked in the face of an uproar by owners who said they had already purchased fresh ingredients for the weekend rush and would suffer major financial losses if they had to throw them out.
In a statement released Friday afternoon, the government said restaurants would have until early Tuesday to switch to takeout and delivery only.
Stores, malls, barber shops, beauty salons and tourist sites will be closed on weekends, starting Friday. Public gatherings will be limited to 10 people indoors or 20 outside. The Cabinet approved the new measures, pending approval by the Knesset, Israel's parliament, but said they would take effect Friday evening with violation considered a criminal offense.
By late May, Israel had largely contained its outbreak following a two-month lockdown. But cases have soared in the weeks since restrictions were lifted, with Israel reporting around 1,900 new cases on Thursday alone. At least 384 people have died since the outbreak began, out of a total of more than 45,000 cases.
Later on Friday afternoon, hundreds of Israelis demonstrated outside Netanyahu's official residence in Jerusalem, calling on the embattled Israeli leader to resign as he faces trial on corruption charges and grapples with the deepening coronavirus crisis.
Some protesters carried images of Netanyahu with a banner reading “Crime Minister.” Another, held by a woman with a red mask, read: “Dictatorship.” Some demonstrators came in swimsuits to protest the closure of beaches.
This was the third such protest in a week. Netanyahu faces charges of accepting bribes, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases. His trial began last month. The long-serving prime minister has denied any wrongdoing, accusing the media and law enforcement of a witch hunt.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, coronavirus cases are also rising again in Iran, which has seen the worst outbreak in the region, with nearly 270,000 confirmed cases and at least 13,791 deaths. That includes 2,379 new cases and 183 deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Health Ministry.
The virus causes mild to moderate flu-like symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with weakened immune systems. It is highly contagious and can be spread by people showing no symptoms.
Separately, Iran's state-run IRNA news agency reported that the United Arab Emirates' flagship carrier has resumed daily flights to Tehran after suspending them in response to the pandemic. The first Emirates flight in around five months landed in Tehran on Friday.
The carrier had suspended service in February after two Iranian passengers tested positive for the virus.
Associated Press writer Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.