Rolling out exit plan, Netanyahu unveils easing of lockdown restrictions

Reunions between first-degree relatives permitted, restrictions on individual movement lifted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference regarding the easing of coronavirus restrictions, May 4, 2020 (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a press conference regarding the easing of coronavirus restrictions, May 4, 2020
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
The government moved to ease a long list of lockdown restrictions on Monday evening, significantly reducing limits on movement as infection rates continue to decline.
Speaking at a press conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that current 100-meter limits on movement from home have been lifted and that first-degree relatives could be reunited, including the elderly with their children and grandchildren.  

Groups not exceeding 20 individuals will now be permitted to meet in outside areas, and crowds of up to 50 individuals will be permitted within two weeks. A total of 50 people will be able to attend wedding ceremonies immediately, enabling marriage celebrations around the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer.
Gatherings of 100 people will be allowed by May 31, and the government hopes to cancel all crowding restrictions on June 14, enabling the opening of theaters, restaurants and other businesses.
Markets, malls and gyms will be able to open their gates from Thursday, Netanyahu said. Despite speculation in recent days, a requirement for malls to record the details of shoppers entering their complex – and monitor their movement inside – is unlikely to be implemented. 
The government also approved the opening of all preschools and kindergartens as currently planned on Sunday, with all school-age pupils expected to return to classrooms by the end of May. 
"Israel's achievements are a model for many countries," said Netanyahu. "Our success is not based on genetics, climate or that we're an island. It is based on three elements: quick action to close the borders and isolate the sick; the exceptional performance of our medical teams; and most importantly, public adherence to Health Ministry instructions." 
The decision to accelerate the end of lockdown measures arrives as the number of active cases in Israel decreased to 5,947 - a decline of 363 cases during Monday. To date, 235 citizens have died and 10,064 have recovered from the virus.
A total of 90 patients are currently in serious condition, 70 of whom require intubation. Only 44 new cases of infection were confirmed throughout the day.
Health Ministry officials warned ministers during Monday's meeting, however, that easing restrictions too soon could generate a return to significantly higher rates of infection.
Netanyahu displayed a series of graphs demonstrating how Israel measures up against the rest of the world, including countries and cities of similar sizes. He showed that while 235 people have died in Israel, 7,924 have died in Belgium (population 11.5 million), 18,000 in New York (8.4 million) and 2,769 in Sweden (10.23 million), countries with populations close to Israel’s
The government is nevertheless expected to approve a state-wide closure on Lag B’Omer, which begins next Monday night, although the lockdown may be less stringent than what Israelis endured on Passover and Independence Day. Interior Minister Arye Deri said he opposed such a closure.
Details regarding the reopening of parks, sports centers and museums will be published in due course, with all facilities expected to open by mid-June. Netanyahu said the government "wants to reconnect Israel to the rest of the world" by facilitating civil aviation, but also wants to prevent the infection of Israeli nationals by individuals arriving from outbreak hotspots abroad.
"We have developed a wide-ranging plan in recent days that enables the State of Israel to return gradually to a 'coronavirus-adapted routine,'" said Netanyahu. "But returning the economy, public and private arenas remains dependent on you, the citizens. It depends on your discipline and responsibility."
The easing of restrictions will be halted, Netanyahu said, should there be 100 new daily cases of infection – excluding individuals arriving from abroad, outbreaks in retirement homes and those living in towns or cities currently defined as outbreak hotspots. Restrictions will also not be lifted should the rate of infections return to doubling itself within 10 days, or the number of patients in serious condition reaches 250.
Alongside the new measures, schools continued to open their doors on Monday morning to pupils in the first to third grades, and eleventh and twelfth grade. Schools in Tel Aviv-Jaffa were among those to welcome the return of children to their classrooms.
According to Education Ministry data, 65% of all children (195,000 pupils) from relevant age groups attended school on Monday. The figures include 22,000 pupils in special education.
Speaking at an international virtual pledging conference hosted by the European Commission on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that Israel would contribute $60 million toward research and development of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines for the coronavirus pandemic.
As of 8:30 p.m., the European Commission said it was just $110 million short of its initial fundraising goal of $8.2 billion.
In welcome news for business owners, the Knesset's Finance Committee approved an NIS 6 billion expansion of the government-secured loan fund for small and medium businesses on Monday, which will now stand at a total of NIS 14b.
Approximately 50,000 applications for financial assistance have been submitted to date, requesting a total of NIS 32.8b. About 23,200 requests have been considered so far, with over two-thirds (68%) of reviewed applications approved. A total of NIS 5.9b. has been allocated to business owners.
"Given the large demand for state-guaranteed loans by small and medium businesses, we saw that it was appropriate to significantly increase the volume of loans in the fund," said Finance Ministry Accountant-General Rony Hizkiyahu. "I welcome the mobilization of the Finance Committee and the banking system to provide assistance to the business sector at this time."
Encouraging figures were also published by the Employment Service, which for the first time identified a higher number of employees returning to work on Monday than new unemployment benefits applicants.
Between 4 p.m. on Sunday and 4 p.m. on Monday, nearly 10,200 employees informed the Employment Service that they had returned to work, while only 2,500 new applications for assistance were submitted.
"This is the first day when we have seen a situation that might signal a positive trend, as the number of people returning to the workforce is greater than the number departing it," said Employment Service director-general Rami Garor.
"We estimate that there are still many who have returned to work and have not yet reported it, and for this reason we are currently refraining from publishing unemployment data."
Maayan Hoffman contributed to this story.