Israel makes masks in public compulsory

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Israel makes masks in public compulsory

Israeli police wearing masks patrol as they enforce a national lockdown to fight the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli government issued orders on Tuesday making the wearing of masks in public compulsory to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

It also approved a timeline for tightened travel restrictions for the Passover holiday, which begins on Wednesday when Jewish families gather for a festive meal commemorating the Biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that this year the dinner should be a small affair, limited to household members, in a bid to keep infection rates in check.

Netanyahu last week urged Israelis to wear masks while in public, a measure the government said would become compulsory as of Sunday. Children under the age of six, the mentally disabled or those alone in vehicles or workplaces are exempted. The government said masks could be homemade.

From Tuesday evening until Friday morning, a ban on unnecessary out-of-town travel will be in place, effectively preventing large gatherings for Passover.

From 3 p.m. on Wednesday, a few hours before the meal gets underway, until 7 a.m. on Thursday, food shopping within towns will also be forbidden, in a tightened lockdown. Israelis are already banned from moving more than 100 metres (yards) from home except for visits to grocery stores and pharmacies, and travel to work.

Announcing an exemption in the Passover restrictions, a government statement said the holiday shopping ban would not apply to "non-Jewish minorities". Around a fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, mostly Muslims, Druze and Christians.

Public transportation, including flights in and out of Israel, will be suspended from 8 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Tuesday until 8 a.m. (0500 GMT) on Sunday, the statement said.

Israel has more than 9,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. Sixty people have died.

Ahead of the holiday, Israel's military has distributed some 50 tons of fruit and vegetables to residents of an ultra-Orthodox town that has been hit hard by the coronavirus and was put under lockdown last week, the military said on Tuesday.

Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, was declared a "restricted zone" on Thursday and police have restricted movement in and out of the town.

Medical experts estimate that as many as 38% of the densely-populated town's 200,000 residents are infected with the virus. Many are poor and some have heeded rabbis who, distrusting the state, spurned anti-virus measures.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)