Gov't imposes partial lockdown as coronavirus spikes

Edelstein to appoint new emergency management authority • New app to cut contact-tracing time • Fine for not wearing mask increases to NIS 500.

Health care workers take test samples to check for coronavirus, Lod, July 5, 2020 (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Health care workers take test samples to check for coronavirus, Lod, July 5, 2020
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Parts of the country will once again be shut down or restricted after the government announced a new set of directives on Monday. They are the first such restrictions since two months ago, when Israel thought it had defeated the virus.
Event halls, clubs, bars, gyms, public pools and cultural performances will be closed. Restaurants will be limited to seating 20 patrons inside and 30 outside. Synagogues must have no more than 19 prayer attendees.
Organized sporting events will continue to be held without fans. Hotels and tourist centers must close their bars and clubs, but their restaurants may have 20 people. Summer camps may only operate for children preschool age through fourth grade.
Buses can transport 20 people at a time with their windows open and no air-conditioning. Government offices are required to have 30% of their staff work from home.
It was still unclear at press time when these new restrictions would take effect, as the Knesset held marathon deliberations on several bills related to the impact of the coronavirus overnight Monday.
“Citizens of Israel, today was a tough government meeting, and at the end we made a decision,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said at a press briefing soon after the decisions were made. “Each section, each clause has an impact on the lives of many citizens – their livelihoods, leisure time and lifestyles. This should not be taken lightly.”
The equation is simple: Decrease in morbidity equals strengthening the economy; increase in morbidity equals real damage to the economy, he said.
“To save lives and to save the economy, we must flatten the curve,” Edelstein said.
At the briefing, he announced three new programs. First, he is putting in place an “emergency management authority,” which will be given the necessary tools and authority to take responsibility for the pandemic and remove the oversight and implementation of testing and contact tracing from the public health services.
“In the near future, I will announce my hiring choice,” he said.
Edelstein also apologized to the many citizens who called the Health Ministry in recent days but did not receive a response.
“I would like to announce a significant increase in manpower at the Health Ministry’s call center to answer the thousands of people who are in isolation,” he said.
The third program is that the ministry will roll out a smart system centered on artificial intelligence capable of carrying out epidemiological investigations, Edelstein said.
The new restrictions came on the backdrop of another spike in cases.
There were 1,057 people diagnosed with coronavirus on Tuesday out of 23,046 who were screened. In total some 31,186 Israelis have been infected with the virus. As of Tuesday, 18,131 people have recovered.
The number of patients in serious condition is 85, including 35 who are intubated. 
More people died, as well, bringing the death toll to 338.
At the afternoon meeting, several participants expressed fear that if action was not taken imminently, then next week they would discuss a full closure.
“We are a step away from a complete lockdown,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during the meeting.
National Security Council Director Meir Ben-Shabbat said the infection rate requires the country to take an immediate step backward.
“We will pay for every delay with new, seriously ill patients,” he said. “The window of change is small; we cannot play around... We are one step away from a total closure.”
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said: “We need to take drastic measures now to prevent more drastic measures in the future.”
But the meeting was not easy, according to those close to the discussion.
A heated dialogue ensued around whether to close synagogues, N12 reported.
According to the report, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said: “Synagogues are points of infection. We are closing event halls, why not synagogues?”
Housing and Construction Minister Ya’acov Litzman said: “Two minutes have already gone by and you didn’t say, ‘Close the synagogues.’ Leave the synagogues alone.”
MK Rafi Peretz said: “Weather permits it now; we can return to outdoor prayer.”
The discussion over whether to close yeshivot was not brought to the cabinet because of a threat made in the morning by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) to quit the government if the option was even discussed there.
In addition to the aforementioned restrictions, the Knesset plenum passed into law the increase in the fine for not wearing a mask in public from NIS 200 to NIS 500 by a vote of 34 to 24.
Law Committee chairman Yakov Asher (United Torah Judaism) said he wanted the fine to be raised by only NIS 100, but the National Security Council insisted on it being raised substantially to help ensure compliance.
Two members of the Jerusalem City Council were confirmed as being infected with the coronavirus in recent days, the municipality announced on Monday.
A number of employees at the municipality have been required to enter quarantine. The municipality said it would update workers who need to enter quarantine after the epidemiological investigation is completed.
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion does not have to enter isolation, his spokesperson said.