Coronavirus: Israel places severe limits on public, private sectors

Close to 300 Israelis sick with COVID-19.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the nation regarding new emergency measures brought in to combat the coronavirus outbreak, March 16, 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the nation regarding new emergency measures brought in to combat the coronavirus outbreak, March 16, 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
The government imposed increasingly severe limits on both the public and private sector on Monday evening, as the number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus climbed to 298.
The public sector will operate according to an emergency framework, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference, with all government and local authority workers placed on paid leave until the end of the Passover holiday, except for those deemed critical for continued operations. Private sector firms exceeding 10 employees will be required to reduce staff present in the workplace by 70%.
Netanyahu said the government will also approve the use of a range of "digital tools" to monitor the spread of the virus for an initial period of 30 days. Responding to privacy fears voiced in recent days regarding the implementation of technological measures previously used to fight terrorism, Netanyahu emphasized the importance of balancing human rights and the demands of the crisis.
"We are not locking people in their houses – this is not a total lockdown, and I hope we will not reach that," Netanyahu said. "We have a more moderate increase in infection than in other countries, are we are doing everything to remain in control."
While localized lockdowns may be implemented in specific areas facing severe outbreaks, Netanyahu said that critical services – including supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and welfare institutions – will continue to operate as normal. Public transportation will also continue to operate according to regular schedules.
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon hailed an agreement reached with union representatives, employers and industry organizations to ease financial struggles faced by businesses and self-employed workers. Measures will include increased eligibility for unemployment benefits and the deferral of payments, including VAT, municipality taxes and utility bills.
Kahlon also declared his intention to inject NIS 5 billion into the Israeli economy, in addition to a NIS 10b. package already announced, to assist small and medium businesses. Details are likely to be announced in the coming days.
Speaking to Army Radio, Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman said authorities were already considering quarantining one town with a significant number of cases. Hebrew media reported that the location under discussion is the ultra-Orthodox town of Kiryat Ye'arim, also known as Telz-Stone, where eight cases have been confirmed to date and a quarter of the population (1,500 residents) are in isolation.
The announcements came as the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Israel jumped to 298 – a spike of 98 people from the day before. Earlier, the Health Ministry accidentally announced an increase to 344 patients, but soon corrected itself. “There was a malfunction in the reporting system," the ministry said, promising it would update the numbers soon.
Of the 298 people confirmed to be infected by the virus, 21 are medical staff. As of Monday evening, there were more than 50,000 people in isolation - among them, 2,600 medical personnel, including 862 doctors.
Three cases of medical personnel contracting COVID-19 have been confirmed in the past 24 hours. On Sunday night, a senior doctor at Ichilov Hospital was reported by Ynet to have contracted the virus. All of the patients in her unit – many of them senior citizens – had to be tested and transferred to another unit, and her staff was sent home to self-isolate. The next morning, an intern in the hospital’s urology department also tested positive for coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the deputy director-general of the Central Laboratory for Detecting Coronavirus of the Ministry of Health at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer tested positive for COVID-19. The laboratory, which carried out approximately 480 tests on a daily basis, was shut down.
Following a request from the Health Ministry to Hadassah-University Medical Center, the Jerusalem hospital said it would aim to fill the gap by doubling or tripling its current rate of tests, calling on PhD students and other laboratory staff to boost their capabilities.
The Carmel Medical Center in Haifa also said that its laboratories are now available to run approximately 100 coronavirus tests on a daily basis, and subsequently plans to increase its capability to 400 tests per day once additional equipment arrives from abroad. The laboratory at HaEmek Medical Center in Afula will also join the effort.
Anticipating an increase in confirmed cases, preparations are underway to convert several hotels into quarantine facilities for patients with mild symptoms. Dan Hotels said it was holding talks to rent three of 14 hotels owned by the luxury chain to the Defense Ministry for use as isolation centers for carriers of the virus.
Footage broadcast by Channel 12 showed soldiers working outside Dan Panorama Tel-Aviv, a hotel usually brimming with tourists and businessmen at this time of year. The Dan Jerusalem Hotel will also host patients with mild symptoms.
National Economic Council Chairman Prof. Avi Simhon estimated that a full shutdown of the economy would likely cost the state at least NIS 50 billion. Speaking to Army Radio, he added that it will be necessary for the government to “significantly increase” the fiscal deficit in order to compensate businesses and support the economy.
Meanwhile, on Monday afternoon, the Intelligence Subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee held its first hearing on whether to approve Netanyahu's request to allow the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to use various advanced technological means to track the movements of persons infected with the coronavirus.
Committee chairman and top Blue and White official Gabi Ashkenazi indicated that he would demand rounds of hearings on the issue to understand it in-depth and would not serve as a rubber stamp.
Already on Monday, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman Tov, Public Services Health Ministry Director Sigal Sedensky and Deputy Attorney-General Raz Nizri all testified before the committee, whose proceedings are often not even announced.
Ashkenazi made several moves to ensure that his committee could proceed with the hearings even as the Knesset officially changed over from the 22nd to the 23rd.
In addition, as countries worldwide continue to restrict incoming and outgoing travel, the Consular Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs encouraged Israeli citizens abroad to ensure that plans to return the country remain feasible.
In a statement, the ministry called on nationals currently residing in Peru to follow instructions issued by local authorities after Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra ordered the closure of borders, including air and sea travel.