JERUSALEM — The Israeli government said on Thursday that it was tightening its second national lockdown after coronavirus cases soared to about 5,000 per day in the last week, the highest rate per capita in the world.
The new measures, which go into effect on Friday, will remain in place at least until the end of the Jewish High Holy Days in mid-October. Most businesses and workplaces will have to close, and all gatherings, including protests and communal prayers, will be restricted to groups of up to 20 people outdoors within about 1,100 yards of home.
“Over the past two days, we have heard from the experts that if we do not take tough and immediate measures, we will reach the edge of the abyss,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet, which met through the night to decide on lockdown restrictions. In the last few days, infection rates surged to about 7,000 new cases per day.
An exception to the restrictions has been made for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, which begins at sundown on Sunday. Limited numbers of worshipers will be allowed to pray inside synagogues as they did last week for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
As on Rosh Hashana, rabbis will be required to arrange worshipers into clusters of 20 to 50, wearing masks and separated by dividers. The number and size of the groups will be calculated according to local infection rates, how many entrances each synagogue has and the space available.
Ultra-Orthodox cabinet ministers had argued that for many Jews, praying outdoors in the heat on Monday would be unbearable, especially for those observing the 25-hour fast of the sacred day of atonement.
But others said the concession allowing all-day services to take place inside synagogues on Yom Kippur defeated the purpose of the tight lockdown because available evidence suggests that the virus spreads much more easily indoors than outdoors.
Synagogues are typically packed to capacity on Yom Kippur, usually the most attended services of the year. After Rosh Hashana, images in local news outlets showed scores of Orthodox men crowding around the entrance of one synagogue in the northern city of Haifa.
The new restrictions, which will exact a high economic price, were largely meant to address a heated political and cultural dispute roiling Israel.
On one side are those asserting their right by law to gather and protest against the prime minister, as tens of thousands have been doing weekly in the streets near his official residence in Jerusalem. On the other side are Orthodox politicians who oppose restrictions on prayer as long as the mass protests are allowed to continue.
Critics have questioned the motives of Mr. Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges and has railed against the protesters and cast them as spreaders of the virus.
Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition in Parliament, said “the bottom line” of the lockdown remained: “It is forbidden to demonstrate against Netanyahu.”
Mr. Netanyahu and his attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, have said that the urgent need to address the public health crisis overrides even basic rights including those to demonstrate or to hold communal prayers without limitations.
“The meaning of leadership is making tough decisions, necessary decisions, lifesaving decisions,” Mr. Netanyahu said to his cabinet, according to a statement from his office. “We do not have the privilege of knowing that we could have prevented additional mortality and that we did not act.”
Mr. Mandelblit said the public health crisis was justification to restrict protests as well as prayers.
“Given the scope of morbidity that is so high as to necessitate a general lockdown, it will be legally justified to limit significantly demonstrations, prayers or any other activity that involves gathering,” he said in a statement on Thursday.
He added that the police had determined that up to 2,000 protesters could fit into the area around the prime minister’s residence while maintaining social distancing and standing in separate clusters of 20 people.
Still, the Israeli Parliament must approve any measures limiting the freedom to protest, which is anchored in law.