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Weddings Put On Hold In Jerusalem As COVID-19 Infections Surge

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Thousands of Israelis protested in Tel Aviv yesterday, blaming their government for mishandling the country's coronavirus crisis. They said money promised by the government to support businesses has not been paid. Meanwhile, there is a swell of infections there. Officials say it's due in large part to Israeli and Palestinian wedding parties that kicked off the summer. NPR's Daniel Estrin spoke to couples in Jerusalem who face the dilemma of what to do about their big day.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: It's been a roller coaster for Israeli and Palestinian couples. Officials have opened and closed wedding venues repeatedly. Palestinian couple Ameer and Jida Abu Sway were supposed to get married in Bethlehem, but the city went under a virus lockdown. They booked a different venue in a different city, but the virus began to spread. And a day before their wedding...

AMEER ABU SWAY: The prime minister of the Palestinian government - he goes to the media and said, OK, from today, there will be no weddings.

JIDA ABU SWAY: I am shocked because it's tomorrow.

ESTRIN: Palestinian officials didn't want their rickety health system to be overwhelmed. Ameer and Jida moved their wedding across geopolitical borders to Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. At the time, Israel still allowed weddings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in Non-English Language).

ESTRIN: They found a band that could be there and a videographer, but some of their guests didn't have the right documents to cross Israeli checkpoints to come.

A ABU SWAY: Yeah, I have a lot of friends that - they couldn't make it.

ESTRIN: Despite the health risk, they didn't want to postpone. They couldn't move in together before they're married. And they're used to powering through uncertain times, like periods of conflict.

A ABU SWAY: We saw so many things more harder than the coronavirus. So, for us, it was like, it's OK.

ESTRIN: They gave hand sanitizer to the guests, opened the roof, urged elbow bumps instead of kisses, and no one got infected. But maybe they were lucky. Around 80% of new infections among Palestinians have come from weddings and funerals. In Israel, venues were still open. I spoke to Daniella Cohen and Yoav Belotsercovsky as they planned an outdoor wedding in the Jerusalem hills.

DANIELLA COHEN: There are going to be at least four...

YOAV BELOTSERCOVSKY: ...Disinfection...

COHEN: ...Stations. The waiters are going to be all with masks. Actually, the place the - where I bought the dress, they made me a special mask also from the fabric of the dress.

BELOTSERCOVSKY: That it will match.

COHEN: So it's like a trend, I think, of, like, corona brides.

ESTRIN: They were going to keep guests' phone numbers in case someone later tested positive. Elderly guests were going to sit at isolated tables, but then infections spiked. Israel cut weddings to 50 guests.

BELOTSERCOVSKY: We sat down, and we shrinked and shrinked our guest list - probably the whole weekend took us to shrink the guest list to 50 people.

ESTRIN: And then Israeli officials blamed weddings specifically for the current spike in cases and closed all wedding venues.

COHEN: It's so confusing, and it's upsetting. Our wedding went from 200 people to 50 to no wedding in, like, three days. It might be the right thing to do, but not like that. The message the government is sending to the population is just, we don't know what we're doing.

ESTRIN: On the other hand, the couple is relieved they're not exposing relatives to a risk. They're rescheduling for next year, when they hope it'll be safer. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAER.'S "CIRCLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.