Coronavirus cabinet meeting, consider new restrictions

Business owners, local authority leaders say leave stores and schools open.

Israelis are seen walking in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda amid the coronavirus crisis, on December 13, 2020. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Israelis are seen walking in Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda amid the coronavirus crisis, on December 13, 2020.
The coronavirus cabinet will convene today to decide whether to impose further restrictions on the public almost immediately – or perhaps even impose another closure.
The meeting follows the end of the Hanukkah holiday – the first holiday since Passover during which no new coronavirus restrictions were imposed. However, the numbers show a sharp rise in infections across the country, and experts say the impact of Hanukkah on the spread of the virus is yet to be seen.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have said they support a decision made earlier this month that if cases surpass 2,500 per day, a period of “tightened restraint” would be rolled out. However, many ministers object and think different measures should be taken, rather than sweeping steps.
Tightened restraint, as originally defined by coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash, means shops, malls and marketplaces would be closed; gatherings would be limited to 10 people in closed spaces and 20 in open spaces; public transportation would be reduced to 50%; and the education system would stay open in green and yellow cities only, but would close in orange and red ones.
According to the most recent reports, beauty salons and hairdressers would remain open, as would other “one-on-one” services.
Netanyahu and Edelstein have said that the situation is worsening, and Israel is on the cusp of a third wave. According to them, restrictions need to be rolled out immediately.
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz has said he was not ready to sign off on tightened restraint without first weighing the decision against the rate of morbidity and mortality, and how fast people could be vaccinated.
The Finance Ministry will also propose an alternative plan that would keep stores open, allow “takeaway” from retail establishments and not just restaurants in red and orange cities and would raise fines. They also plan to put the idea of a night curfew back on the table.
By contrast, the National Security Council is considering recommending that the ministers impose a short but total lockdown right now.
If the cabinet does vote in favor of tightening restrictions, they would be in place for at least three weeks and this has already angered the business sector and riled the heads of local authorities, who want to see all children go back to school.
“The intention to impose a third closure on the business sector will lead to an economic catastrophe,” said Roee Cohen, president of Lahav, the association of independent businesses. “I call on the prime minister and members of the coronavirus cabinet not to close down retail and street shops.”
He said that the organization would join together with members of the fashion manufacturers and street shops community in a large-scale protest on Sunday to oppose such a move.
“We will no longer be part of the government’s mask festival, it is time to deal with it in a professional and matter-of-fact manner and not collectively punish all small business owners in Israel,” Cohen continued. “The government has led store owners to anarchy, forced to decide between food for their families and compliance with restrictions that are imposed without any justification.”
Thousands of students in fifth through 12th grade will not be returning to their classrooms on Sunday as a result of the rise in infection.
The coronavirus cabinet on Thursday night approved the list of cities that have become red and orange, and the Home Front Command updated its map, accordingly, designating 48 red cities and 62 orange.
The list of red and orange areas is no longer just Arab towns and villages, but includes Kiryat Yam, for example, and Kiryat Bialik, and among others, Ashkelon and Dimona. There has been a spike in infection in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) areas in recent days. The reproduction rate (R) is higher among the haredi sector (1.6) than among the general community (1.24).
Not all red and orange areas are entire cities, some are areas or neighborhoods of towns and cities.
Until now, the coronavirus cabinet has allowed preschools through fourth grade to open in all cities, regardless of infection levels. As noted, if the original plan for “tightened restraint” is approved, then preschools and elementary schools would also be shut in orange and red areas.
Haim Bibas and Shai Hajjaj, leaders of the local authorities, called on the prime minister not to close these classrooms, regardless of infection.
They wrote to the prime minister on Friday, together with the heads of local authorities, saying that the school system is not the reason for the most recent outbreak and that studies must continue at any cost.
“The government... must not interrupt the children’s education routine once again,” Bibas stressed. “This is not a privilege – this is our duty.”
Meanwhile, the infection numbers are exceptionally high – averaging around 2,300 new cases per day, on many days topping 2,500. According to the Health Ministry’s forecast, Israel will reach 5,000 to 6,000 new daily cases and 800 serious patients even before the impact of any new restrictions, or the results of the country’s vaccination campaign will be seen.
There were 2,815 new cases recorded on Friday, the ministry reported Saturday. Some 445 people were in serious condition, including 109 who were intubated. The hospitals were treating 732 people. Some 3,070 had died of the disease.
As noted, the virus is spreading throughout Israel, but especially among the ultra-Orthodox – again.
“The data of the past week shows that the outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox sector is worsening, and an increase of more than twice as many confirmed cases in the sector were measured this week,” wrote Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in an opinion piece published at the weekend by N12.
He said that the rate of positive tests in the ultra-Orthodox sector last week was 7.2%.
“On the other hand, there is some restraint in the Arab sector, where the R rate stands at 1.02, but absolutely the numbers there are still high,” he continued.
“There has also been a sharp increase in the spread of the virus [among the general population]. From a situation in which half of the infected were concentrated in 12% of the population, we have moved to a situation in which half of the disease is concentrated in 24% of the population.”
He added that: “We seem to have lost control of the plague” and that “from all the data, it seems that the probability of an outbreak is similar to that in the second wave.”
According to Segal, if vaccination was not on the horizon, “it would be worthwhile to impose severe restrictions in order to reduce morbidity as soon as possible, since we would get there anyway, and it would be better sooner rather than later.”
He said, however, that the impact of vaccination should be seen by February and that therefore another option is to “wait and see.”
Tamar Beeri contributed to this report.