Israel will remain in a state of lockdown at least until Sunday at midnight, the coronavirus cabinet decided on Tuesday.
"The decision to ease restrictions and allow for a gradual exit from the lockdown will require a constant and certain decrease in morbidity rates, and reaching that will take a few days," the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement following the meeting.
The only changes to the current restrictions are that there will now be exceptions made to allow close relatives to travel more than one kilometer to attend a wedding. In addition, professional athletes will now be able to resume their training.
A debate over the continued lockdown and the exit date broke out at the coronavirus cabinet, which met late into the night on Tuesday to discuss the first stages of Israel’s planned exit strategy. Already before the cabinet convened, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided that a final decision would be made on Thursday.
At the heart of the debate is the reopening of small businesses and preschools. On Tuesday, Finance Minister Israel Katz sided with Blue and White and called for the reopening of businesses. Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz first called for the restrictions to be lifted no later than Friday while Netanyahu pushed for an extension of the lockdown through Monday at midnight.
“Small businesses are collapsing,” Katz said, adding that children needed to go back to their frameworks. “Opening them does not hurt health and adds much to the economy.”
Business owners took to the streets Tuesday in protest of the lockdown, with many threatening that if the closure isn’t lifted soon, they would open anyway.
Netanyahu said that if the country opens before the infection rate hits the Health Ministry’s limit for release, it will appear that there are “loopholes in the closure and our decisions will go down the drain… We didn’t reach the goal of 2,000 new cases per day, so we have to wait until Thursday” to decide.
The cabinet meeting, initially scheduled to start in the afternoon, was delayed by several hours after Health Minister Yuli Edelstein stressed that the morbidity rate was still too high to make practical decisions.
"Prof [Ronni] Gamzu expressed great concern that despite the closure, 3,000 people were infected in a single day," a statement by the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Later, at the cabinet meeting, Edelstein said that “It is difficult to understand the morbidity trend and to assess what happened during the holidays in the red cities. Only in four weeks will we really know what the level of morbidity really is.”
Nonetheless, after pushback from Gantz, Katz and others, the meeting commenced. A statement from the PMO stressed that the meeting was meant solely to discuss the stages of the exit strategy and their approval - not to lift the closure.
On Tuesday, the infection rate continued to decline. The Health Ministry reported 3,112 new cases on Monday, 5% of those screened. 802 patients were in serious condition on Tuesday evening and the Health Ministry reported a total of 2,040 dead.
Meanwhile Tuesday, a report by the Military Intelligence’s Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center showed that the average daily infection rate remained higher than what could allow Israel to effectively cut the infection chains.
If the decline in morbidity continues at the current rate, the report warned, within two weeks the number of daily infections will cut in half, to around 1,500.
In a sign of the partial success of the lockdown, Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto told the Knesset Coronavirus Committee meeting that when the closure began, there were 200 red cities and that today there are only 26.
“The success of the closure has resulted in us having good morbidity indices,” Grotto said. “We are not yet at the number that allows us to start the first phase of the opening, but if it continues at the current pace, there is no reason why we should not reach the index we want and to start opening on Sunday.”
The first stage of the Health Ministry’s exit strategy is expected to include lifting the the 1,000-meter travel restriction, allowing private businesses that do not serve customers face-to-face to operate, opening preschools through age six, allowing family members to visit one another in their homes, allowing takeaway from restaurants, and reopening beaches and nature reserves.
The National Student and Youth Council called on the government to “put students at the top of the list of priorities” and accused it of putting malls before “a million abandoned teenage boys and girls.”
The council was backed by data published by the Education Ministry which showed that in 94% of preschools there were no infections; in 54% of primary schools there were no infections; and in close to 45% of middle and high schools there were no infections.
According to the ministry’s exit plan, older grades would open sometime in December or January.
“You are abandoning an entire generation from your air-conditioned offices and ruining its future because of the economic interests of pressure groups,” the council accused.
Gamzu is expected to present a list of red cities at the cabinet meeting later this week and it is likely that many will be ultra-Orthodox, since the morbidity rate there is higher than the rest of the country. Haredi politicians have said that they will fight any initiative to differentiate between red and green cities.
The full list of cities is not known, but is likely to include Ashdod, Beitar Illit, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Kiryat Malachi, Netivot, Ofakim, Or Yehudah, and Ramla. During a visit with the Mayor of Jerusalem on Tuesday, Gamzu said that there were only two red neighborhoods in the city: Ramat Shlomo and Neve Yaakov.
Media reports claimed that the government was in agreement about opening Ben-Gurion Airport during any first stage of an exit strategy - first for business travel and then for tourism. At the meeting, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit said that the airports could only open when the 1,000m travel restriction was lifted, since otherwise it would be almost impossible to enforce it.On Tuesday, the cabinet ministers agreed to keep the airport closed until at least October 15. On Wednesday, a special meeting will take place about the airport.
Knesset Coronavirus Committee Chairwoman MK Yifat Shasha-Biton opened the discussion by asking participants to focus on the plan, but to also take into account the repercussions of the current closure.
“We have to look at the number of unemployed, how many people have gone bankrupt, and domestic violence. We are losing an entire generation of children here - those children who have not been to school regularly for some time,” she said. “We know the virus will stay here for at least another year and we will not shut people in their homes for a year.”
She said that “society has crashed” and that the country must learn to build a livable routine alongside the virus.
"We hear more and more people, out of great distress, threatening to break the closure. We have lost public trust. To prevent anarchy, we need to talk to the public with logic and transparency.”