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Jerusalem sanitizes stones of Western Wall and removes all notes amid coronavirus fears

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Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world travel to Israel each year to visit the Western Wall in the holy city of Jerusalem. But as cases of coronavirus soar worldwide, the city is taking extra precautionary measures to halt its spread. 

The wall is considered one of the most religious sites in the world, and thousands visit to pray in front of it and place prayer notes between its stones. With the Jewish holiday Passover fast approaching, concerns that even more visitors to the wall could exacerbate the spread of COVID-19 prompted additional sanitization. 

According to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the ancient stones at the wall, also known as the Wailing Wall or Kotel, were cleaned and sanitized Tuesday morning by workers wearing hazmat suits and gas masks. 

At the same time, workers wearing protective gloves removed the prayer notes stuck in between the stones using disposable wooden tools. Per tradition, the notes were placed in designated bags to be buried along with other sacred papers on the Mount of Olives, the foundation said. 

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Workers sanitize the Western Wall on March 31, 2020 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Jerusalem. EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP / Getty Images

While the notes are removed bi-annually to allow room for new ones, extra emphasis was placed on sanitation this year. 

"During these difficult days in which the plague is spreading around the world and threatening our lives, we collect prayers from around the world at the remnant of our destroyed Temple, prayers to the Creator of the Universe that He should send us a complete healing and good health and redeem us from this difficult virus that has attacked the world," said Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, Rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, who attended the note removal and prayed for those who have contracted the virus. 

A worshipper who stepped up to the wall and kissed it Tuesday was removed by police amid tightened public prayer restrictions, according to Reuters. Israel now has at least 4,831 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and at least 17 deaths. 

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Workers in Jerusalem remove notes from the Western Wall to be buried on March 31, 2020.  Western Wall Heritage Foundation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released updated social distancing guidelines on Tuesday, following reports that the ultra-orthodox Jewish community was not taking safety precautions seriously. While the new rules prohibit gatherings for prayers and weddings in public, they make an exception for prayer groups of ten men, known as minyans, who are at least 6 feet apart from each other at the Western Wall. 

Netanyahu also asked the people of Israel this week to celebrate Passover, Easter and Ramadan in their own homes, without extended family or friends. 

"This year we will celebrate the seder with the nuclear family at home," the prime minister said during a live broadcast to the nation. "Together we will go through this and win."

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