Coronavirus cabinet votes: Israel to start reopening on Sunday

Preschools, takeaway to resume * Some businesses to open * Netanyahu warns: ‘If infection rises, we will take a step back’

Is Israel about to open up after the second national lockdown? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Is Israel about to open up after the second national lockdown?
Less than a month after Israeli citizens were put under lockdown, the coronavirus cabinet ruled Thursday to begin lifting restrictions.
Beginning on Sunday, businesses that don’t serve customers, preschools for children ages newborn to six, nature reserves, national parks, beaches, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount will open. At the same time, restaurants will be able to serve takeaway, the ban on traveling more than one kilometer from home will be lifted and people will be allowed to visit the homes of their extended family and friends.
Finally, people will be able to gather in groups of 10 inside and 20 outside.
The decision came against the backdrop of data from the Health Ministry showing that Israel had nearly met the goals set by the Health Ministry to open up the economy. Some 2,009 people were infected with coronavirus on Wednesday, the ministry reported, with a total of 720 people in serious condition, including 248 who were ventilated. The death toll rose to 2,121.
“As of now, the lockdown has been a major success. We are seeing a decline in all data, a clear and consistent decline,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the meeting. Nonetheless, he added, “the exit needs to be gradual, responsible, careful and controlled.”
But he also warned ministers during the meeting that “there will not be any change to the outline, no loosening and no tightening. If we discover suddenly that the numbers are going up, we will stop. And, if we need to, we will take a step back. If there is opposition, speak now.”
At the meeting, head of Public Health Services Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis shared data showing that Israel now stands at an average of 2,400 new cases per day out of an average of 37,000 tests. The reproduction rate is around 0.63 Health Ministry data showed, meaning that every person infect less than one other.
The Health Ministry has said that if the numbers rise to over 2,000 new cases per day or the reproduction rate hits between 0.9 and one, the country will stop opening up. If the reproduction rate spikes to more than one, restrictions will be put back in place.
Not all of the ministers followed Netanyahu’s rules. Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz complained that the country was exiting lockdown too quickly and Israel should wait until there were no more than 1,000 new cases per day.
Minister of Culture and Sports Chili Tropper pushed to open some culture and sporting activities, and Transportation Minister Miri Regev also wondered why the country could not allow salons and beauty parlors to take clients.
There was also a fight over opening the education system between Education Minister Yoav Gallant and Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto. Gallant claimed that infections do not happen at schools, but only at weddings and other large gatherings.
“Repeating that there is no connection between the infection rate and the opening of schools will not make it true,” Grotto pushed back.
The Health and Education ministries were expected to meet late into the night Thursday to approve an outline for how preschools will operate. The lack of planning was reminiscent of the previous decisions to open schools – both in May and September.
Teachers said that they feel unprepared to open their classrooms, with some even saying that they won’t manage to meet expectations by Sunday, and might have to delay the students’ return until later next week.
“The system is not prepared to open preschools on Sunday – period,” Israeli Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben-David said in an interview with Channel 12. “The preschool teachers don’t even know what the outline is… no one spoke to us, no one included us.”
She said the teachers were not told what protective measures would be needed to ensure that infection does not spread, or whether staff that lives in red cities will be allowed to come to work in green cites.
“If we open like this,” she said, “to my dismay, we will meet again during the third lockdown.”
The loosening of restrictions does not apply to red zones, areas in which the rate of infection is still high. A separate meeting about those areas will be held on Saturday night.
The list of red cities is not final, but sources said that the following are expected to be on the list: Beit Shemesh, Beitar Illit, Bnei Brak, Elad, Kiryat Malachi, Modi’in Illit, Netivot, Ofakim, Ramle, Rehasim and some Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu expressed hope that some of the red cities could become orange by the time he was expected to reveal the final list after Shabbat.
Many of the red cities are haredi (ultra-Orthodox). Maj.-Gen. Ronni Numa, who is responsible for oversight of the haredi community during the coronavirus crisis, said Wednesday that about 36% of newly infected people are from the haredi sector.
Finance Minister Israel Katz said that he would form a special team to provide increased financial assistance to those areas, in order to facilitate their ability to get through the difficult period.
Regarding “red cities that continue to stay closed, the Interior Ministry will receive a special budget for their needs... beyond the standard aid program,” he said in a statement during the cabinet meeting.
MK Yakov Asher, who chairs the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee that will have to approve the exit strategy’s first steps, said he would not approve a special outline for red cities without a convincing plan.
“You cannot just come and lock down a city, put roadblocks around it and go home,” he said in an interview from the Knesset. “People live there, not animals.”
Head of the Ultra-Orthodox Desk in the Health Ministry Ronni Numa came to an agreement with the Committee of Yeshivas and Rabbis regarding the reopening of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.
According to the agreement, yeshivas with dormitories will be able to open on Tuesday, including in red cities, with every yeshiva student being required to take a coronavirus test and obtaining a negative result before being allowed to enter the yeshiva.
They will be required to take tests before returning home at the end of the semester in the middle of December, while teaching staff will be required to undergo tests every 14 days.
Students will be allowed to leave the yeshivas for dating purposes, however.
During the Elul semester, 5,000 yeshiva students contracted coronavirus, and numerous yeshivas broke the guidelines established for them by the Health Ministry.
Numa expressed “satisfaction” with the new agreement, noting that dozens of yeshivas that had not been involved in the Elul program had now joined, adding that yeshivas that were not part of the new agreement would require government enforcement to keep them closed.
At the cabinet meeting, the ministers discussed a proposal by Interior Minister Arye Deri (Shas) to allow up to 200 people to attend “Jewish life-cycle” events in capsules of 20 people. The dialogue escalated when MK Itzik Shmuli of Labor told Deri that his plan would not work:
“Have you ever seen a wedding in capsules? It won’t happen. And that was a serious source of the outbreak in the first wave,” Shmuli pressed.
Deri responded: “You probably don’t understand the meaning of marriage, of its sanctification in Judaism” Shmuli replied, “Do not underestimate my faith and I will not underestimate yours. I am no less a Jew than you.”
He added that “the only principle that must guide us is epidemiological. The virus does not negotiate.”
Deri left the discussion in a huff. N12’s Donna Weiss said that sources close to Deri said that the minister expected Netanyahu to support his plan.
“It is permitted to get married in the State of Israel,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said in a briefing following the meeting, in response to a question about Deri’s plan. He added that “there is no change in the position of the Health Ministry. Gatherings are the most dangerous things at the moment.”
Following the meeting, politicians and industries alike began to respond to the cabinet’s decisions.
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz reminded the public that “the coronavirus is still here – and I ask each and every one of you to obey the regulations, be sure to wear a mask, social distance and maintain good hygiene. Israel’s morbidity is still high and hundreds of people lose their lives every week.”
The Association of Restaurants applauded the move and said that the decision will allow 3,000 businesses and 20,000 employees to return to operations.
According to Israel Police, the decision to loosen restrictions comes at the right time. They said that they had noticed a significant increase in people breaking restrictions in recent days – both by traveling more than one kilometer from home and gathering.
Police shared on Thursday morning that they have issued 31,534 tickets to people for breaking regulations in the past week (October 8-14), including 3,821 in the last 24 hours.
This first stage will last two weeks. If the infection rate remains stable, then the ministers will begin talking about approving the second stage of the exit strategy – which is to include non-medical treatments and alternative medicine, as well as the resumption of school for children in first through fourth grade.
Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.