Stormy cabinet meeting deadlocked on reopening of schools, businesses

Coronavirus cabinet meets Sunday to discuss putting first and second grade children in capsules.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement at the PM's office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2020.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a press statement at the PM's office in Jerusalem, on August 13, 2020.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
After a long day of stormy debates, the coronavirus cabinet decided that first-fourth grades will go back to school on November 1.
First and second graders will study three days a week in capsules and third and fourth graders will study a full week in capsules.
Businesses will also open on November 1, according to an agreement between the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry. The issues of afternoon programs and transportation will be decided Monday  between the two ministries, mediated by the National Security Council
Prime Minister Netanyahu said at the corona cabinet: meeting "I believe that fines should be raised upwards, and that action should be taken resolutely against those who violate the guidelines, whether it is weddings, events or anything else that causes mass infection."
Frustrated parents anxious to know whether and when they can send their children back to school had to wait until nearly 10 p.m. to get answers.
The cabinet resolved that opening of afternoon programs for children and businesses will be discussed tomorrow between the Health and Finance ministries, and that the National Security Council would mediate between the two sides.
The Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office announced early Sunday evening that it would extend the existing restrictions on the economy until next Sunday. The cabinet did decide to allow outdoor educational activities with up to 15 participants and the opening of boarding schools for at-risk youth.
However, the Health, Education and Finance ministries could not align on a plan for sending children in first and second grade back to school. At press time, it appeared likely that first and second graders would return to school on November 1 in capsules, each capsule learning for half the week. Third and fourth graders would go to school a full week in capsules.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that the bottom line of any proposal was that people would have to follow regulations: “Don’t use the word ‘enforcement.’ There is nothing to expect from enforcement.”
Education Minister Yoav Gallant warned that “We need to understand that postponing the decision for a week is postponing the implementation for a week. We need preparation time.”
This proposal poses a dilemma for parents, many of whom will still not be able to return to work full time and will have to spend at least half the week caring for their children.
Interior Minister Arye Deri said during the coronavirus cabinet deliberations: “The cabinet must make a decision tonight regarding students in grades one through four – it can no longer be put off. I suggest that first and second grades will open fully, while third and fourth grades will open in capsules. Maybe pupils in first and second grades will be required to wear masks. Whatever is decided, the whole cabinet should take responsibility for it.”
The Education Ministry released statistics saying that 332 preschoolers tested positive for the virus out of 592,000 and that 56 preschools were closed due to outbreaks of infection out of 21,000.
Medical experts, like the ministries, had differing opinions about what should be done. The Israel Medical Association, citing a rise in depression and behavioral disorders among children, called Sunday for an immediate reopening of the schools and warned of damage to children if the schools remained closed.
Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis warned that if the education system and businesses were opened too quickly, it would “lead to a third lockdown.”
And Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu said that “we want a safer opening… Some of the class sizes are extremely large and we saw the rise in infection last time among all ages.”
But Dr. Ze’ev Feldman, director of the Sheba Pediatric Neurosurgery Unit and chairman of the State Physicians Association, said that, “If the State of Israel wants life and wants to prevent the third closure, which could be particularly deadly – both health-wise and economically – then it is worth adopting the recommendations that include learning in capsules, learning in the open air or using technologies for improving and filtering air, and systematic monitoring of teachers.”
Finance Minister Yisrael Katz met on Sunday with Haim Bibas, chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, who presented an outline for allowing local authorities to take over schools and return children to schools at little to no extra cost.
The outline Bibas presented calls for a return of first and second graders to school until 1 p.m. on Sundays through Thursdays, in classes divided into capsules as required by the Health Ministry. But unlike previously proposed plans from the ministry for a gradual and partial return to school, this plan does not require any budget increase and will be implemented through the use of gyms and outdoor spaces, and flexibility in the curriculum and staffing.
However, the challenge with giving local authorities the charge of carrying out safe programs is that some will be able to and others won’t and it could create further gaps in learning.
The Finance Ministry has said the Health Ministry’s capsule program would cost NIS 6 billion. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that there is no money for capsules in first and second grades.
There were also no decisions on the opening up the economy further, including stores and small businesses. If approved, beginning on Sunday, up to five people could enter every business, street shops would open and “takeaway” would be possible from any store. Also, salons and cosmeticians could open – and one-on-one sports and other training, such as driving lessons, could resume. Finally, alternative medicine would be offered again.
“I demand a decision on businesses,” Katz said during the meeting. But more than four hours later, no decision had been reached.
However, there was one decision that was made by the cabinet: The Tourism Ministry’s initiative to define the city of Eilat and the Dead Sea area as “green tourism islands” was approved.
According to the outline, the city of Eilat and the hotel complex surrounding the Dead Sea will be defined as “special tourist areas.”
Entry into the green tourist areas, which house around 30% of the country’s hotel rooms, will be conditional on the presentation of an up-to-date negative coronavirus test. The outline will allow the opening of hotels there while adhering to Health Ministry distancing guidelines.
At a later stage, more gradually, the law that will be enacted will allow the opening of more businesses in the areas, which will serve the hotel guests.
Meanwhile, in the Arab sector, there continues to be a spike in morbidity.
Gamzu, who visited Acre Sunday, said that infection rates were on the rise in Arab cities. He criticized the Arab sector for continuing to hold large weddings, saying, “There are likely dozens of weddings every day in Arab communities.”
The Ministerial Committee for the Declaration of Restricted Areas  approved the recommendation of the Health Ministry and the coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu to declare Majdal Shams a restricted area starting Monday at 6:00 p.m. until October 31 at 6:00 p.m. This is in accordance with the increasing morbidity data in the town, that for five days the area passed the score of eight in the traffic light index.
He also warned about the fact that not enough tests were being done in Arab and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities.
Gamzu, who also spoke in the formerly red ultra-Orthodox city of Rehasim on Sunday, said that for the haredim, as well as for the rest of society, the greatest challenge is how to open the schools.
He praised the ultra-Orthodox community for following regulations and reducing the rate of infection. “You’re a community that can control the virus in an excellent way and you have great foundations… The challenge for you is not synagogues but the education framework… there must be a careful opening of education,” he said.
Gamzu did not address the fact that, according to reports, more than half of ultra-Orthodox schools have already opened, against regulations.
Gamzu also announced Sunday that the quarantine period will be only 10 days if someone has had two negative tests.
There was a proposal Sunday to increase fines on opening businesses from NIS 5,000 to NIS 10,000, for holding gatherings from NIS 5,000 to NIS 15,000 and for opening schools from NIS 5,000 to NIS 25,000. However, the increases were also not finalized by press time.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.