Church of the Nativity shuttered in Bethlehem after coronavirus infections

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. | Creative Commons

The Palestinian Authority announced Thursday that the Church of the Nativity, a site revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, as well as all other tourism and archaeological sites in the West Bank, have been closed after at least seven hotel workers in Bethlehem were infected with the coronavirus by a group of Greek tourists.

Hours after the announcement, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also declared a 30-day state of emergency.

“We have decided to declare a state of emergency in all Palestinian areas to confront the danger of the coronavirus and prevent it from spreading,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said, reading from a decree from the president, Reuters reported.

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Shtayyeh said he was given full authority to oversee implementation of the PA’s coronavirus response and that a decision was also made to close all schools, colleges, and kindergartens as well as cancel foreign tourist reservations.

According to The Times of Israel, the tourists who are from Greece were diagnosed with the virus on their return home. Israel’s Health Ministry said the tourists visited Israel and the West Bank between Feb. 19 and Feb. 27.

At least 40 people, including 14 American citizens, as well as about 25 Palestinian guests and employees, are currently quarantined at The Angel Hotel, in mostly Christian Beit Jala, The Jerusalem Post reported. The seven infected people are the first known cases of coronavirus in the Palestinian Authority.

“The Americans left the hotel this morning, but the Palestinian Tourism Police brought them back because they could not secure [another lodging] place” in the Bethlehem area, Maryana al-Arja, the manager of the hotel, noted in the report. “The seven people who are infected or suspected of being infected are inside the hotel.”

Arja said PA health officials were making arrangements to get medical care for the guests at the hotel.

“The American [guests] are aware of the situation and are in contact with their country's embassy,” Arja noted. “Israeli authorities have asked that the Americans be quarantined for 14 days before being admitted to Israel. So far, no samples have been taken from the Americans. We call on health officials to inform us of their plan.”

In a rare move, Israel and the PA have also decided to work together to respond to the new coronavirus, Haaretz reported, including to cooperate on epidemiologic investigations, particularly those involving tourists who visited both Israel and the PA-controlled West Bank.

On Friday, more than 100,000 cases of coronavirus infections as well as 3,408 resultant deaths were confirmed globally as countries struggle to keep the epidemic in check, The Wall Street Journal reported.

The death toll in the U.S. jumped to 14, Friday from 233 cases in at least 18 states.

President Donald Trump on Friday morning signed an $8.3 billion emergency spending package to combat the virus.

“We’re doing well, but it’s an unforeseen problem,” the president said as he signed the legislation in the White House's Diplomatic Reception Room, MSN News reported.

He also noted that he did not think Americans were too worried about the potential effects of the coronavirus.

"I don't think they're panicking," Trump said. "It'll go away."

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