JERUSALEM - Israel is tightening a strict lockdown beginning Friday as the number of COVID cases continues to skyrocket. There are close to 7,000 new cases a day, and total infections have passed 200,000, all in a country of just nine million people. Hospitals are turning away infected patients and the Israeli army is building a large field hospital for new cases.
Israel has become the first country in the world to order a second lockdown, after infection rates have spiked in the past few weeks. Israel now has one of the highest rates of new infections per capita, with more than one in eight Israelis who take a coronavirus test getting a positive result.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no choice but a complete lockdown to get the numbers down.
He said that if Israel does not take serious steps immediately, the country will be on the brink of disaster.
The order is for the entire country, except for essential services like supermarkets and pharmacies, to shut down completely for at least two weeks.
Schools were moved online a few weeks ago after the number of cases among students and teachers climbed.
On Sunday and Monday, the lockdown will affect prayers on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar when people fast and atone for their sins.
Small groups will be allowed to pray together both inside synagogues and outside, with some doctors saying even this is a mistake. The new rules also limit anti-Netanyahu demonstrations which had been gaining strength over the past few months.
Officials have also considered shutting down Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport.
The lockdown will exact a heavy economic price, and analysts expect the unemployment rate - which had been improving - to rise as more businesses close down permanently.
Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology and an advisor to Israel's coronavirus czar, says Israel handled the first wave of the virus very well, but made some mistakes after that.
"At the beginning Israel responded and the public went with the plan, there were no exceptions, there was a complete lockdown and the public responded," said Levine. "What happened is that once the rates went lower, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the public go and have a good time. He said this is like an accordion when the rates are low, you can behave almost normally, when the rates are high, lockdown for everything. This is a wrong concept. Dealing with the current pandemic is like a marathon and in a marathon you need to keep pace all the time, you can run a bit differently but you need to keep moving on. You cannot stop completely."
Levine warns that Israel needs a detailed plan about how to slowly open up after the next lockdown. He also said that any long-term plan will only work if the public has trust in the government. For now, polls suggest that is in doubt.