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Israel doubly deserted on Yom Kippur during holiday and COVID-19 lockdown

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - In ordinary times Yom Kippur brings much of Israel to a standstill, as businesses close and roads empty for the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

But the world has looked very different this year, so deserted highways in city centres have become something of a familiar sight, even on days other than religious holidays when.

Israel entered its second-wave lockdown on Sept. 18 after a surge of new cases had hospitals worrying about the strain on admissions. The country of nine million people has logged at least 1,441 deaths from COVID-19.

Health ministry directives that prayers be held in small, socially-distanced groups outdoors spelled an effective shutdown order for many synagogues, the first widespread curbs on the houses of worship during Yom Kippur since Israel’s founding in 1948, according to a spokesman for the Chief Rabbinate.

“At this period of atonement and forgiveness, I would like to ask this of all citizens of Israel,” the head of the pandemic taskforce, Ronni Gamzu, said in a letter quoted by Israeli media.

“And my apologies to everyone in Israel - security, traditional, religious or ultra-religious - for the holiday period that will be constrained this year.”

Closures were also imposed on entry and exit from the occupied Palestinian Territories, as during most Israeli holidays.

Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise