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Coronavirus: Bethlehem goes into lockdown amid outbreak fears

The arrival of disease in the town has prompted the closure of the Church of the Nativity

Palestinian security forces wearing masks block the entrance to the crossing gate between the Israeli occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and Jerusalem that remained closed on March 6, 2020. EPA
Palestinian security forces wearing masks block the entrance to the crossing gate between the Israeli occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem and Jerusalem that remained closed on March 6, 2020. EPA

Lighting struck over Bethlehem's deserted streets on Friday as the biblical town went into lockdown, after Palestinian authorities declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus and Israel closed checkpoints.

Wearing surgical gloves and a white face mask, a lone man stood at the entrance to the Angel Hotel, which stands at the centre of the occupied West Bank's first outbreak of the virus.

Seven Palestinian staff tested positive and were moved into quarantine, the health ministry announced on Thursday.

Red tape cornered off the hotel, which was guarded at a distance by armed Palestinian security agents.

A number of Greek tourists who stayed at the hotel last month were diagnosed with the virus after returning home, the official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported.

While most businesses in the area were closed, hairdryers were whirling at the Gold & Ash Salon opposite the hotel.

"Most people closed today because there's no work. Nobody wants to go out," said 28-year-old owner Fadi Abu Ghannam.

Five brides had been booked in for their wedding hair on Friday, he said, but two were unable to travel from Jerusalem.

Israeli authorities have closed the main vehicle checkpoint leading to Bethlehem and on Friday morning Palestinians could enter the city on foot but not leave.

Palestinian officials meanwhile imposed a month-long state of emergency in the West Bank, which included shutting schools, tourist and religious sites and cancelling hotel stays for foreigners.

"Everything's closed; universities, churches," said Mr Abu Ghannam.

His usual 12-strong staff had been just to cut four, both due to the lack of work and fears from young parents' staff over coronavirus.

Israeli media reported 14 Americans were being held in the hotel opposite, along with staff, after failing to find an alternative place to stay.

The US embassy in Jerusalem did not respond to a request to comment on their citizens' circumstances.

The arrival of coronavirus in Bethlehem also prompted the closure of the Church of the Nativity, believed to be Jesus' birthplace, as well as other religious sites.

"Unfortunately, this danger is already in our midst," said the Vatican's Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa.

"With a sense of responsibility, we must cooperate with the authorities and those responsible for public health for the good of all," added the archbishop, who serves as the apostolic administrator of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.

Steps to close the key Christian site in Bethlehem and ban tourist stays have raised considerable concerns for the local economy, just weeks ahead of Easter celebrations.

Outside the Church of the Nativity on Friday, just a handful of Palestinians mingled in the square which had been emptied of foreign visitors.

epa08274736 An entrance to the Church of the Nativity is closed as one of the preventive measure against the coronavirus, in West Bank city of Bethlehem, 06 March 2020. The Palestinian Ministry of Health said tests are being carried on the suspected cases and called on churches, mosques and educational institutions in Bethlehem to close to contain a possible outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus. EPA/ABED AL HASHLAMOUN
epa08274736 An entrance to the Church of the Nativity is closed as one of the preventive measure against the coronavirus, in West Bank city of Bethlehem, 06 March 2020. The Palestinian Ministry of Health said tests are being carried on the suspected cases and called on churches, mosques and educational institutions in Bethlehem to close to contain a possible outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus. EPA/ABED AL HASHLAMOUN

Those still in Bethlehem were ordered to stay in their hotels, while busloads of tourists leaving the area were kept waiting for hours as Israeli authorities tried to arrange early departure flights or hotels where they would stay in their rooms until heading to the airport.

Israel has registered at least 16 coronavirus cases and ordered tens of thousands of people to self-quarantine at home.

In Bethlehem the shutters were pulled down at the famed Walled Off Hotel on Friday, a face mask placed playfully on a monkey bellboy statue outside.

All tourists had left the hotel, opened by British street artist Banksy, which sits next to the high concrete wall separating the Palestinian town from Israel.

As well as cancelling hotel bookings, measures imposed by Palestinian authorities include postponing public events such as the Bethlehem marathon scheduled for March 27.

George Zerdan, co-founder of the Right to Movement Palestine running group, said people wanted more transparency over the handling of coronavirus.

"People have big doubts in how the local authorities are handling the epidemic. I am not sure if the authority is doing the right thing or not, but the mistrust between the people and the authority is very clear," he told The National.

As a storm raged above the ill-fated Angel Hotel, bringing hail and claps of thunder, Mr Abu Ghannam said officials have not been keeping him updated.

But the stylist pointed to social media for worsening the situation.

"It makes people afraid," he said.

Across at the hotel, the lone man still stood at reception, while upstairs, a curtain was pulled shut.

Updated: April 21, 2020 02:57 PM

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