This year, no Christmas cheer at Jesus’ birthplace
PIC: AFP

The coronavirus has cast a pall over Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, all but shutting down the biblical town revered as Jesus' birthplace at the height of the normally cheery holiday season.

Missing are the thousands of international pilgrims who normally descend upon the town.

Restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops are closed. The renowned Christmas tree lighting service will be limited to a small group of authorized people, as will church services on Christmas Eve.

"Bethlehem is dead," said Maryana al-Arja, owner of the 120-room Angel Hotel on the outskirts of Bethlehem.

The hotel was the site of the West Bank's first coronavirus outbreak - when a group of Greek tourists came down with the virus last March.

She kept her 25 workers on staff for several months but ultimately couldn't continue to pay them.

Al-Arja, who herself was infected with the virus, said she has been forced to close the hotel and lay off the entire staff because there is no sign of the pandemic ending or tourists visiting anytime soon.

"We had 351 tourist groups booked in our hotel this year, each one 150 people," she said. "But they all canceled." Elyas al-Arja, the head of the city's hotel association, said Bethlehem received some 3 million tourists in 2019.

The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, this week imposed a new nighttime lockdown to help contain a spike in coronavirus cases.

People must remain indoors from 7 pm until 6 am, and Bethlehem is included in the lockdown.

Officials say the lockdown could be extended through Christmas and into the new year if the infection levels don't come down.

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