Netanyahu fails to impose night curfew on Israel

Coronavirus cabinet leaves fate of schools undecided again

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking out a barred window (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looking out a barred window
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
After nearly seven hours of discussions, the coronavirus cabinet dispersed Sunday with no decisions about the next steps in the country’s exit strategy, leaving parents with no answer for when their children will return to school.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who failed to pass additional restrictions such as a night curfew, said he would instead hold a meeting with Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, National Security Head Meir Ben-Shabbat and health professionals to prepare a new proposal that would come up for a vote.
“I want to make sure that we continue to make the right decisions, with as broad a consensus as possible, to enable us to open up the economy and education without endangering the lives and health of the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu said during the meeting.
The ministers intended to vote on potential new restrictions to lower the rate of morbidity, whether to open classrooms for grades five and six and whether to allow strip malls to operate.
Although it did not come to a formal vote, the ministers agreed on lowering the threshold for becoming a red zone and locking down at least four red cities. They also agreed on the need to implement a night curfew on a handful of orange cities – despite health officials expressing the lack of effectiveness of such a move.
When the meeting began, Netanyahu pushed for a national night closure. However, coronavirus commissioner Nachman Ash, who attended his first meeting in his new role, pushed back and explained that a national night closure would not work.
He joined the ranks of other Health Ministry professionals, including director-general Chezy Levy, who over the weekend cautioned that at most, a curfew would reduce the infection rate by 5%.
The commitment of resources needed to enforce a night curfew would be significant, but the impact would be negligible, the Israel Police said.
In their presentation, the police said they were not able to enforce a night curfew to its fullest extent because it would involve exercising more authority than is currently possible, such as being able to monitor what goes on in people’s homes. They also said they would only be able to stop large, outdoor gatherings or people traveling by car between cities.
The police are struggling to enforce illegal activities that are putting the country at risk, they said.
Israel Police Interim Insp.-Gen. Motti Cohen said the police have deployed thousands of officers in enforcement and have thwarted hundreds of mass incidents, “but without the cooperation of citizens, it will be difficult to reduce morbidity.”
In the past week, police have dispersed 63 incidents, including weddings and raves, he said.
Eventually, Netanyahu conceded and removed the idea of a national curfew from the agenda.
“What are we discussing here?” he asked. “We already dropped the idea of a night closure. Why are we wasting time?”
At a minimum, the cabinet would need to make some move to tighten restrictions, Netanyahu said.
His suggestion was to shut down retail establishments at 7 p.m., a move that Finance Minister Israel Katz opposed and that health experts said was unlikely to balance out opening up other parts of the economy.
In response to the suggestion, the head of LAHAV, the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, mocked the government.
“The government is once again caught with its pants down,” he said. “There is no plan for dealing with the coronavirus, so it takes trial-and-error steps to the detriment of small businesses.”
“What crowd is there in stores at 7 p.m.?” he asked. “There is a terrible sense of déjà vu.”
However, the reproduction rate (also known as the R) is on the rise. According to the Health Ministry, the reproduction rate on Sunday morning stood at 1.04. The Health Ministry has said nothing more should open until it hits 0.8 or lower.
The R is the number of people one sick person infects.
On Sunday, the Health Ministry reported 286 people were diagnosed with the virus on Saturday, or 2.3% of those who were screened. An additional 292 people were diagnosed between midnight and press time.
There were 304 people in serious condition, including 133 who were intubated. The death toll stood at 2,732.
“We opened businesses, schools and bed and breakfasts,” Ben-Shabbat said. “We maintained some restrictions, improved the cutting off of infection chains, leveraged enforcement and fines and masks. All of this has not helped keep the R at 0.8, and morbidity is rising. The R is around one.”
Among the most serious of questions being discussed on Sunday evening was whether to return fifth- and sixth-grade children to school. These grades were originally expected to go back to their classrooms by Sunday but it was then suggested that they would return on Tuesday.
The Health Ministry was opposed to opening schools because of the reproduction rate.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant spoke passionately at the cabinet meeting, and most of the ministers agreed that the pupils should return to school, especially in light of a presentation provided by the Weizmann Institute of Science that showed there had been little increase in infection since first through fourth graders went back to school.
“We are preparing for a third lockdown,” Gallant said. “The education system is quietly waiting on the sidelines, and nothing is happening.”
“We pay for the illegitimate things that happen – parties, demonstrations, prayers and so on,” he said. “In the end, the ones who suffer are those who stand quietly in line, for example, the education system.”
After the meeting, Gallant released a video in which he told parents and teachers that the ministers were behind him and that he believed a decision would be made on Monday to immediately allow students in grades five, six, 11 and 12 to return to school – and other classes soon after.
Earlier in the day, the local authorities held an emergency meeting, pressuring the cabinet to act.
“Enough toying with our children’s education,” said Council of Local Authorities chairman Haim Bibas.
“We need to open more classrooms,” he said, “not restrict anything else and certainly not allow a night curfew... We are losing an entire generation because of the inability of the government to make decisions.”
At the same time, the Health Ministry confirmed to The Jerusalem Post that it is considering working with legislators to formulate a bill that would allow principals to refuse entry of teachers and staff who have not been screened for coronavirus.
According to a ministry spokesperson, the new legislation is in the preliminary stage, after the legal establishment said the ministry could not move forward with a bill that would require teachers to be tested.
The idea of legislating an incentive for teacher screening came after the Health and Education ministries offered teachers free testing without a referral, but only some 25% of teachers chose to be tested.
Before the meeting, it seemed that the ministers had already agreed to open strip malls on Tuesday. However, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he opposes it. On Saturday nights, these complexes fill up with people and put the country at risk, he said.
“I have a letter from IKEA that they want to open, as well,” Edelstein said. “Let the malls also open – we are getting into trouble here. My position is that we must now allow them to open.”
The Malls Association submitted a letter to the cabinet in which it outlined a safe way to open malls. The association is protesting allowing strip malls to open while keeping them shut.