Ministers met until late Thursday night considering how and when to impose a lockdown due to an increasing surge in coronavirus cases throughout the entire country.
The meeting stretched on due to infighting in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet over whether to close summer camps and other remaining educational institutions.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant strongly opposed closing schools because of the heavy toll it will take on the economy.
Out of 700,000 students, 895 have coronavirus, the Education Ministry reported – a tenth of a percent.
Gallant charged that the Health Ministry does not make data-driven decisions but rather “intuitive choices without the facts. I am opposed to closing the camps. If we do that, give parents at least a week to prepare.”
The Finance Ministry said that every day in which the camps are closed stands to cost the country NIS 300 million.
Netanyahu told the cabinet: “We are making every effort to prevent a full lockdown. We are working according to the pace of the coronavirus, and we don’t have a lot of choices. This is not a normal situation. This is not a situation that allows us to take steps for a few days and hope it will turn out alright. The disease is changing quickly and we need to change along with it.”
The prime minister warned that “the alternative steps are harsher and we are trying to avoid them. Ultimately, there may be no choice but to take them. However, at the moment, we are trying to make rapid decisions that we can agree on.”
In the end, the government agreed on a long list of new directives:
Beginning Friday at 5 p.m.
> Gyms and studios used for sports or dance activities (except for use by competitive athletes) - closed
> Restaurants - takeaway and delivery
> Workplace cafeterias - pickup only
Hotel restaurants will be able to continue operating at 35% capacity.
Weekend restrictions (Fridays from 5 p.m. until Sundays at 5 a.m.):
> Beaches will be closed (except this weekend, when they will remain open)
> Stores, malls, retail markets, hairdressers, beauty salons, libraries, zoos, museums, pools and other tourist attractions will be closed
Grocery stores, pharmacies and those that sell essential items will remain open, as will optical stores and computer and communications repair shops. Also, hotel pools that are accessible to guests only can operate.
The following activities will also be impacted:
> Gatherings - up to 10 people in closed spaces, 20 in open spaces (beginning Friday at 5 p.m.)
> Public reception at government offices - reduced as relevant
> Government offices - 50% of staff will work outside the office or be put on leave
Decisions about camps and other educational programs will be determined in the coming days by the prime minister and alternate prime minister, in consultation with the finance, health and education ministers.
Many medical leaders and politicians alike had negative reactions to this plan, among them the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, which said the decision was “devoid of epidemiological logic.”
Netanyahu wanted to see the lockdown go into effect already this Friday. However, doing so would not be feasible, both because Blue and White said it would not vote in favor of such a move and because it requires legislation that could not be prepared in time.
Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said Thursday afternoon that to date he has not been consulted about the legality of the government announcing a second national lockdown. He was expected to present his position to the cabinet Thursday evening after learning about the initiative through the media.
The goal of the new restrictions is to reduce the number of new daily patients to 400 by August 31, National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat said, with the idea that the situation would be assessed again at the end of the summer.
Currently, the average number of daily patients is much higher than that.
The Health Ministry said on Friday that 1,819 people were diagnosed with the virus on Thursday – one of the highest number of new diagnoses to date. Out of 29,504 tests, the infection rate holds at 6.2%.
There are nearly 26,000 people who actively have the virus, among them 213 who are in serious condition. Some 387 people have died.
Earlier in the day at the coronavirus cabinet meeting, Interior Minister Arye Deri warned the group that steps needed to be taken immediately to prepare for the winter, when tens of thousands of people could be sick with the flu.
“Everyone who has the flu will think he has the coronavirus and will run to the hospital,” Deri reportedly said at the meeting. “The hospitals are likely to crack down. We got through the first wave with awesome success, but we lost it all at the beginning of the second wave. When we had 100 newly diagnosed people per day, we needed to prepare better to test, isolate and cut off the infection chains.”
MK Naftali Bennett lashed out at the cabinet’s decision to impose such a lockdown as early as Friday, tweeting that the government is “disconnected, irrational and destructive.”
Coalition member MK Gideon Sa’ar (Likud), who has a historical rivalry with the prime minister, also took to Twitter. He said the move will “exacerbate the damage to the economy” and “will not achieve its desired purpose.”
Also, on Thursday, High Court of Justice President Esther Hayut sent a letter to the entire judicial branch to try to rally them despite setbacks from the second wave.
Hayut said one judge and nine other judicial branch employees are infected and that 24 judges and 192 branch staff are in quarantine.
She said the judiciary was doing its best to learn lessons to bring infection rates down but gave the impression that the courts will remain open.
She also slammed the recent failed attempt in the Knesset to launch a state commission of inquiry regarding judicial conflicts of interest as having ulterior motives, framing it as “another wave” of problems with which the judiciary is having to cope.
At the same time, the Defense Ministry announced it is working to expand its agreement with MyHeritage to conduct 30,000 coronavirus tests per day, up from 10,000. At the same time, the ministry said it’s aiming to shorten response times by expanding automation processes and connecting the laboratory directly to healthcare providers.
The ministry’s Directorate of Production and Procurement said it hopes to sign an agreement with My Heritage in the coming days, the ministry said.
At the same time, the Defense Ministry is working to assist the Health Ministry and healthcare providers in purchasing and bringing testing equipment to Israel. It also announced that it rolled out a financial and hasbara (public diplomacy) support plan for the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community of Kiryat Ye’arim, which has a high level of infection.
A poll by Channel 12 found that a high percentage of the public would prefer the coronavirus crisis be moved to the authority of the defense establishment.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.