Coronavirus: Chaos and conflict expected at Thursday’s cabinet meeting

Infection rate declining * Airport to open Thursday at midnight

People on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, October, 14, 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
People on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, October, 14, 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The coronavirus cabinet is expected to convene on Thursday afternoon for a last-minute Zoom meeting that is likely to be chaotic, and could erupt over which cities will remain closed while the rest of the country starts to open back up.
The infection rate is going down - there were fewer than 3,000 new cases over the last day and only around 5% of people tested positive - so it is likely that the cabinet will greenlight the opening of preschools and businesses that do not accept customers.
“Lockdown regulations were correct and important, and there's a reason for optimism,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday.
Other aspects of the first stage should include opening national parks, beaches and takeaway and removing the one-kilometer restriction on movement.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Transportation Minister Miri Regev already agreed on Wednesday that Ben-Gurion Airport could open Thursday at midnight.
But teachers and school administrators are saying that even if the government approves welcoming young  students back into their classrooms, they are unsure that they will be able to prepare on time.
At a meeting of the State Audit Committee on Wednesday, a senior official from the Health Ministry, Efrat Aflalo, said preschoolers through children in grade three will not be schooled in capsules. Rather, she said, teachers will no longer float between groups and they will wear masks all day.
Another part of the plan is supposed to be that teachers will be screened for coronavirus before returning to school, as Head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis explained earlier this week, since adults are more likely to spread infection than young children.  Given that the cabinet is only deciding on Thursday, it is unclear if this testing can occur on time.
The biggest fight, however, is expected to erupt over red zones, which coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu said he would like to keep under lockdown, even if the rest of the country emerges.
The majority of those cities are haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and the residents are strongly opposed to staying locked down for what would likely be at least another two weeks due to their high infection rates.
On the list: Beit Shemesh, Beitar Illit, Bnei Brak, Elad, Kiryat Malachi, Modi'in Illit, Netivot, Ofakim, Ramle, Rehasim and some Jerusalem neighborhoods.
According to the Health Ministry, these areas constitute around 12% of the population and 40% of infection.
Edelstein, Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to these cities Wednesday in various briefings.
“There are not a small number of municipalities that instead of whining and weeping over the bitter fate … pounce on the virus, act correctly, and we see the results in the field,” Edelstein said during a briefing from the epidemiological tracking center in the Binyamin Region.
“People will not be able to get out of there,” Levy said. “They will not be able to get out so that they will not go elsewhere and bring illness there.”
Haredi leaders and politicians have already said that they will not accept an outline that keeps haredi towns and cities under closure without proper treatment of and compensation for their residents.
Moreover, the Health Ministry and the ultra-Orthodox sector have not yet reached an agreement on the date of opening up the yeshivas and how to do so.
Maj.-Gen. Ronni Numa, who is responsible for the oversight of the haredi community during the coronavirus crisis, said that, “We need to see that the outline for running the yeshivas is accepted by all the rabbis and yeshivas.”
Speaking Wednesday,  he said that there are lessons to be learned and best practices for how to handle schooling and that “there won’t be outlines that people invent for themselves. There are still disagreements. We need to ensure that what we decide is right will be carried through.”
“I do not see a situation in which Talmud Torahs will be opened in the coming days,” he said.
Numa did note it was possible that boarding schools would receive permission to operate, but according to a stricter outline. Regarding preschools: “We’ll have to see what the decision will be.”
He noted that there is still high morbidity in haredi areas and that among children between the ages of 10 and 19 the rate is rising. However, Numa said that in general there is a decline in infection, similar to the one that was seen in the general sector eight or nine days ago. Around 36% of new infections are from the haredi sector (down from 40%), he said.
“But we will only understand the implications of the holiday [of Sukkot and Simchat Torah] on Tuesday,” Numa added.
Despite warnings, already on Monday, a number of haredi Talmud Torahs for children opened against the law. Next week, most of the yeshivas have said they will open with or without Health Ministry approval.
Netanyahu in his video message attempted to address haredi concerns: “Tomorrow, I will convene the coronavirus cabinet, and the first thing we will decide upon will be a separate exit strategy for the red cities,” he said. “We will give their mayors tools [to manage a longer closure] so as not to endanger the population.”
Netanyahu also confirmed the opening of the airport, saying, "I will open the skies and support the opening of the airport according to what the experts told me, that there isn't a health risk for people that travel straight to the airport and leave it upon return to Israel."
From the beginning of the closure, only passengers who purchased a ticket before the closure took effect were allowed to fly.
The attorney-general said that the continued closure of the airport was problematic because the airlines were threatening lawsuits due to damages the closure has caused them. The decision to open the airport came after criticism from airport industry officials about the decision not to allow people to purchase flight tickets.
Many details were still being worked out on Wednesday. What is clear is that the airport will have to adhere to the Health Ministry’s Purple Ribbon restrictions and travelers and airport personnel will need to wear masks and observe social distancing.
Channel 12 News reported on Wednesday night that Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, who has tested positive for the coronavirus, infected three members of her staff. According to the details of the epidemiological investigation that were released, Gamliel infected three members of her office after she broke lockdown regulations and traveled to Tiberias on Yom Kippur: the director general of the ministry and two advisers. It was written in the transcript of the investigation that she prayed in a synagogue in Tel Aviv on Yom Kippur and informed the worshipers herself that they needed to go into isolation but the word “Tiberius” did not appear in the transcript, indicating that she did not tell investigators that she had traveled there to spend the holiday with her husband’s family.
There were 2,285 new coronavirus cases diagnosed on Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported on Wednesday evening. Some 755 people were in serious condition. The death toll rose to 2,098, meaning 58 people have died in the past 24 hours.