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Coronavirus cases soar as Israel prepares tighter measures

Israel on Wednesday reported a new record level of daily cases of coronavirus, shortly before government officials were to meet to discuss tightening a new nationwide lockdown.

The Health Ministry reported 6,861 new cases Wednesday as a raging outbreak showed no signs of slowing. Israel, a country of some 9 million people, now has one of the world's highest rates of coronavirus on a per capita basis, and health officials say hospitals are quickly approaching capacity.

The government last week imposed a nationwide lockdown that closed schools, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. The coronavirus cabinet was meeting later Wednesday to discuss further tightening the restrictions.

A man practices jumps on his skateboard during a nationwide three-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, on Tel Aviv's promenade, Israel, Tuesday, Sept 22, 2020. (AP PhotoOded Balilty)

Israel won international praise for its handling of the outbreak last spring, moving quickly to seal its borders and impose a lockdown that appeared to contain the virus. But the government reopened the economy too quickly, and a new outbreak has quickly spread throughout the summer. The economy, meanwhile, has not recovered from a serious downturn caused by the first lockdown.

The Health Ministry has instructed hospitals to delay non-essential surgeries and to open additional coronavirus wards as the number of serious cases continues to rise.

Beyond further limiting economic activity, officials have been discussing shuttering synagogues and clamping down on protests — both of which risk sparking a public backlash. The limits would come at a time when Israeli Jews are celebrating the High Holidays and when weekly demonstrations have been held against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Israelis play paddleball under a closed hotel during a nationwide three-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, on Tel Aviv's promenade, Israel, Tuesday, Sept 22, 2020. (AP PhotoOded Balilty)

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said restrictions would have to be tightened in the near future.

“Educational institutions will be closed, the economy will be limited to essential work, synagogues will have no indoor prayers, with arrangements for outdoor prayer, and demonstrations will be allowed without protesters traveling between cities,” he told Channel 12 TV. “Everyone will demonstrate where he wants, will pray where he wants and will stay at home. That is what is required now.”

Israelis play paddleball under a closed hotel during a nationwide three-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, on Tel Aviv's promenade, Israel, Tuesday, Sept 22, 2020. (AP PhotoOded Balilty)