In the West Bank, the town of Bethlehem faces its second Christmas Eve affected by the pandemic, with small crowds and grey, gloomy weather dampening celebrations Friday in the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
A ban on nearly all incoming air traffic by Israel — the main entry point for foreign visitors heading to the occupied West Bank — is keeping many international travellers away again this year. The ban is meant to help control the spread of the highly contagious Omicron coronavirus variant.
Prior to the pandemic, thousands of Christian pilgrims from around the world would visit the town at Christmas, providing some holiday spirit and an economic boost to the town.
The lack of foreign visitors has Bethlehem counting on the Holy Land’s small Christian community to lift spirits.
Bethlehem Mayor Anton Salman said the town was optimistic this Christmas would be better than last year, when local residents stayed home due to lockdown restrictions.
“Last year, our festival was virtual, but this year it will be face to face with popular participation,” Salman said.
In Bethlehem’s Manger Square, scout bands paraded through, banging drums and holding flags ahead of the arrival from Jerusalem of Latin Patriarch Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the top Roman Catholic clergyman in the Holy Land. Pizzaballa was scheduled to celebrate Midnight Mass at the nearby Church of the Nativity — which houses the grotto where Christians believe Jesus was born.
– From The Associated Press, last updated at 5:55 a.m. ET
What’s happening in Canada
For more details on how COVID-19 is impacting your community — including hospital data and the latest on restrictions — check out the coverage from CBC newsrooms around the country.
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Canada reported more than 20,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time on Thursday, a culmination of a record-shattering day that saw several provinces confirm new highs in infections.
According to the CBC News coronavirus tracker, the country registered 20,699 infections, eclipsing the previous record of 14,465 set the day before.
New single-day highs were seen in British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island on Thursday.
Ontario’s case count eclipsed the previous high of 4,812, set back in mid-April, while Quebec’s previous high of 6,361 was Wednesday.
Dr. Kieran Moore, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, said this week that record-high daily case counts were expected and will likely continue for several weeks.
In the Western provinces, B.C. reported 2,046 new cases Thursday, a new high, after the province shut down bars, nightclubs and gyms Wednesday and banned gatherings such as weddings. It’s the third day in a row that the province’s COVID-19 case numbers have hit new highs. On Wednesday, a report from an independent COVID-19 modelling group said hospitalizations due to B.C.’s Omicron-fuelled fifth wave will reach unprecedented heights by around mid-January.
Alberta reported 1,625 new cases Thursday. The province’s chief medical officer of health said Albertans should use rapid tests to confirm whether they have COVID-19 if they show symptoms, rather than booking PCR tests. She noted that lab capacity has been strained in Quebec and Ontario, where Omicron is causing case counts to spike.
Saskatchewan reported 194 new cases and one additional death Thursday.
One new death and 556 new cases were reported Thursday in Manitoba. The province warned that it has hit its capacity for processing tests and there is now a four-day wait for results. Current case counts are an undercount because of the delay, the government said.
In New Brunswick, officials announced 257 new cases Thursday and another two deaths. The province’s chief medical officer of health is urging people to keep their gatherings small.
Nova Scotia also reported a new high Thursday, with 689 new cases.
Prince Edward Island on Thursday announced new restrictions and a record 35 new cases. Starting Friday at 8 a.m., wedding and funeral receptions as well as wakes and visitations will no longer be permitted. Organized gatherings such as worship services, wedding and funeral ceremonies, concerts and shows will be capped at 50 people, and schools won’t return to in-person learning until at least Jan. 10.
Newfoundland and Labrador is back in COVID-19 Alert Level 3 as of Thursday morning, the change brought on by a rapid increase in cases, the emergence of the Omicron variant and outbreaks found across three of the province’s regional health authorities. At Level 3, people are asked to stay home as much as possible and to maintain a household bubble of up to 20 people. The province reported 100 new cases Thursday, the highest count since February.
Yukon reported nine new cases Thursday.
Nunavut is tightening COVID-19 public health restrictions in Iqaluit, including restricting travel in and out of the capital city to essential purposes only.
The territory says starting at noon today the city’s swimming pool, theatre, and hair and nail salons must close. Restaurants are limited to takeout food only. Indoor gatherings in homes are limited to five people plus household members.
In the Northwest Territories, people identified as a contact of someone who has COVID-19 by a public health official in the N.W.T. must isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status. The new public health order came into effect Wednesday at 5 p.m.
-From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 6:40 a.m. ET
What’s happening around the world
As of early Friday, more than 278.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s case-tracking tool. The reported global death toll stood at almost 5.4 million.
In Australia, the federal government cut the wait time for people to get booster shots. Starting Jan. 4, the country will offer booster shots to everyone over 18 years old who had received their second vaccination shot four months earlier. The interval would be reduced again to three months by the end of the month, said federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. The move comes as Omicron cases in Australia hit 9,100 on Friday, up from the previous day’s record of 8,200.
In India, judges of the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most-populous state, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to suspend political rallies and election campaigns in regions due to hold elections early next year. Despite rising infection numbers due to the Omicron variant, political parties, including Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, have been holding rallies and meetings where crowds continue to ignore pandemic protocols. The judges said, if possible, the elections that are expected to be held in February 2022 should be postponed by a couple of months.
– From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 6 a.m. ET