Increased fines for breaking COVID-19 rules? Cabinet to debate Monday

Businesses threaten to open this week against regulations.

Shops in Jerusalem sit closed during the national coronavirus lockdown, Oct. 2020 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Shops in Jerusalem sit closed during the national coronavirus lockdown, Oct. 2020
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The government on Sunday approved in principle a draft law that would increase fines on those who violate coronavirus regulations.
The bill will be debated on Monday at the coronavirus cabinet meeting and then passed onto the Knesset, where it is expected to meet strong opposition, later in the week. The Health Ministry and outgoing coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu have been pushing to increase fines since last month, but due to opposition, mainly from the ultra-Orthodox, the legislation has not moved forward.
 
On the table is increasing the fines for opening or operating a business against regulations from NIS 5,000 to 10,000, for holding a wedding or other large event from NIS 5,000 to NIS 20,000 and for opening an educational institution from NIS 5,000 to NIS 20,000.
“It’s crazy that we’re opening up in a dramatic way without raising fines,” senior Health Ministry officials were quoted as saying over the weekend. “It’s critical. Five thousand shekels does not deter anyone.”
 
But haredi (ultra-Orthodox) lawmakers have informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that they will not support such a move – especially when the infection rate is declining. The heads of the United Torah Judaism Party, MKs Ya’acov Litzman and Moshe Gafni, said that if the bill came to the Knesset, they would vote against it in every possible forum.
 
“We said and have continued to repeat that we would oppose raising the level of fines, which are high anyway against the backdrop of the difficult economic situation in which Israeli citizens find themselves,”  said UTJ faction chairman Yitzhak Pindrus. He specifically cited the number of businesses that are collapsing.
 
“The government should formulate solutions and not increase fines,” Pindrus said.
 
He did not mention education institutions, hundreds of which have been opening illegally since the High Holy Days.
 
Either way, the decision to move forward with considering increased fines comes on the same day as many businesses are threatening to open on Monday or Tuesday, despite a decision by the government to hold off allowing even street shops to operate until November 8.
On Saturday night, the “I Am Shulman” movement, which fights on behalf of self-employed people and small and medium businesses, kicked off a campaign with a video on Facebook calling on street-side businesses to open on Monday at 9 a.m.
 
 “Go out and earn a living!” said one of the members of the movement in the video. “The government has lost it.”
 
The “I Am Shulman” movement said it would provide legal services to help businesses that decide to reopen.
 
“We are giving the government 24 hours to think about it and to change their delusional decision,” said the movement in an ultimatum, saying that the government had until Monday to provide a logical and fair plan.
 
The BIG shopping center group followed the move by announcing on Sunday morning that it will open its open-air centers in “green” cities on Monday, and will begin demanding full rent and fees from businesses located in the centers.
 
In a letter to businesses in BIG centers, BIG group CEO Hay Galis stressed on Sunday that while businesses received support and compensation from the government and unpaid leave, the BIG group did not receive the same support and did not send workers on unpaid leave. The group also forgave rent and management fees.
 
“We did not receive a single shekel for this period, neither from the state nor from you,” wrote Galis, adding that the group had tried, and failed, to convince business owners to protest against the conduct and decisions of the government.
 
“The ability to open business is in your hands, from now the results are also passed onto your shoulders. Carry it and succeed,” wrote the CEO. “Now it’s your turn. The honorable government is playing with us, playing with you, asking for a few more days, and a few more days, because of the hysteria and disconnection of the Health Ministry and the prime minister’s inability or unwillingness to make a decision.”
 
After the announcement by BIG, Zim Urban Life shopping centers announced that they, too, would open open-air centers on Monday, including in “red” cities, according to Channel 12. The centers are planning to open in locations such as Beit She’an, Arad, Netivot, Umm el-Fahm, Yirka, Tira and Taiba, among others.
 
The battle over opening businesses between Finance Minister Israel Katz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein began last week, carried through the weekend and resurfaced first thing Sunday morning when Katz called for the street shops to be opened as early as this coming Tuesday: “The need and justification exist and are justified, and morbidity is also declining.
The insistence of the Health Ministry is unnecessary and lacks a factual basis and leads to anarchy and a lack of supervision that will only increase morbidity... The centers of infection must be located and enforced elsewhere.”
 
To this Edelstein replied, “Whoever demands to lead today, after the increase in the coefficient of contagion, to a reckless opening of the economy, leads us with open eyes to further closure and economic, social and health disaster. I understand the plight of shopkeepers. Our duty to help them.
 
“At the same time remember that a quick opening now means another closure later,” the health minister added. “Complacency will eventually lead to a death sentence for many businesses. The opening of the economy must not be in competition with populism that could lead to the destruction of the economy instead of its restoration.”
 
Later, at a briefing at Sheba Medical Center, where the first volunteer was inoculated with the Israeli coronavirus vaccine, Edelstein added: “It is easy to ask why the grass is greener on the other side. Against this, there is no vaccine.” But he said the decisions at the coronavirus cabinet must be solely based on wisdom, rather than populism, so that the country does not end up again where it was in May.
 
On Sunday, the Health Ministry reported some 218 new cases of the novel coronavirus were diagnosed the day before – 2.9% of the people tested.
 
Out of the sick, 399 are in serious condition and 176 are on ventilators. The death toll rose overnight to 2,541.
 
At the same time, a report by the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center indicated that the drop in infection rate recorded in recent weeks is slowing down and may be coming to a halt. With the government planning to lift more lockdown regulation, the report said, Israel may see a rise in morbidity again within the next two weeks.
 
“With the first wave, we were among the first countries to declare a lockdown and close the borders of the country, and we came out of it well,” Netanyahu said during the Sheba briefing. “We are now experiencing the second wave. We were practically the first country in the world that again used a lockdown; even as we are now exiting, the countries of Europe are entering lockdowns amidst a very harsh wave.
You have seen that [UK Prime Minister] Boris Johnson declared a lockdown in Britain yesterday as [French President Emmanuel] Macron did previously in France, as was also done in Belgium, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and many other countries. Almost all of Europe is now entering some kind of lockdown. At a time that we are leaving, they are entering, and we wish them all success.
 
“There is another transition and there are more stages,” the prime minister continued. “These stages require us to take measured steps that the coronavirus cabinet has decided upon, and I know that this entails hardship especially for street merchants. We will help in every way so that they might exit in an optimal manner, without risking their health and that of the citizens of Israel, and we will do likewise with the rest of the population.”
 
In related news, Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved the implementation of a continuation assistance scheme, in which local authorities will be provided with tools to care for patients in the community, including in “yellow” and “green” localities. This is in a limited and adapted format, in order to maintain the low morbidity levels and preserve the means provided.
 
Also, in the ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, during police patrols in the area of Binyamina, police dispersed a wedding that was taking place with more than 100 guests and gave out a NIS 5,000 fine to the organizer.
 
Likewise, in the area of Zichron Ya’acov, police units also broke up a separate large wedding and issued the same fine.
Finally, Edelstein ruled on Sunday evening, after consulting with Health Ministry professionals, on a pilot to shorten the amount of isolation days needed for a COVID-19-related quarantine from 14 to 12 days.
 
The professionals will formulate the exact outline in the coming days. The pilot is expected to launch soon and run through the end of the year.
 
Edelstein said that, “after a series of consultations with professionals, I’ve ordered the isolation period to be shortened from 14 days to 12 days. Our goal is to allow maximum freedom with minimum risk to public health.”