Coronavirus cabinet to convene today: red zones, synagogues on the agenda

Death toll surpasses 900

Inspectors conduct coronavirus tests at a checkpoint in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Inspectors conduct coronavirus tests at a checkpoint in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
With just two days left until the start of the school year, the coronavirus cabinet is expected to meet on Sunday to vote on whether or not to implement Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” program.
The plan includes limiting the opening and running of schools in red zones, as needed, and could alter the plans for schools to open in at least 20 cities come this Tuesday.
Last week, Gamzu said there was a possibility that schools – or minimally grades 11 and 12 – located in red zones would not open until after the High Holy Days.
On Saturday, during a visit to the Arab city of Tira, Gamzu informed officials that this week the town could be declared a red zone, together with about 20 other cities and towns – many of them Arab – unless there was a change in the infection rate.
He said that the situation in Tira does not allow for the safe opening of schools and that his team would consider locking it down.
Gamzu added that most of the infections in Tira – which on Saturday night had 503 sick people, 356 who were diagnosed with the virus in the last week – are because people do not follow Health Ministry directives. He said people are contracting the virus at weddings, that they do not stay in isolation when they are supposed to, and do not wear masks.
“Those who violate quarantine and roam the streets are like criminals walking around with a gun and shooting at passersby,” said MK Ahmad Tibi, who accompanied Gamzu on the visit to Tira.
The final vote on the traffic light plan has been delayed several times over the last three weeks. The plan centers on identifying communities as red, yellow/orange or green based on several factors, including the number of new infections in a recent period, the overall rate of infection and how many people test positive out of those who are screened for the virus.
On Saturday night, the Health Ministry showed 21 red cities, including not only a number of Arab towns, but also several haredi (ultra-Orthodox) cities, such a Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit.
The coronavirus cabinet meeting will take place against the backdrop of a week of tension over banning hassidim from traveling from Israel to Uman for Rosh Hashana.
Traditionally, as many as 30,000 Israelis travel to the central Ukrainian city for the holiday. But this year, with infection rates high in both countries, the coronavirus commissioner cautioned against the pilgrimage, even writing a letter to Ukraine’s president asking him to ban these Jews from coming.
President Volodymyr Zelensky later did decide to partially close the country’s borders through September 28. Hassidim who tried to enter the country just ahead of when the ban was supposed to start were left stranded at airports on Friday.
Irina Rybnitskaya of the Rabbi Nachman Foundation said that hundreds had initially been stranded on Friday, although she later said some were being let in.
“It seems they have begun to let them in. But not all of them,” Rybnitskaya told Reuters. There was no kosher food available where they were kept, she added.
Andriy Demchenko, a spokesman for the border service, told Interfax Ukraine that dozens of hassidim had been stopped at airports this week as border guards could not confirm the purpose of their trip.
“We do not make decisions on any discriminatory criteria. We make decisions that help protect the health of our citizens, regardless of their nationality, citizenship or religion,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Friday.
Mikhail Tkach, executive director of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine, said the pilgrims had been warned in advance there could be problems on arrival.
“I don’t know what they were counting on; it’s difficult to understand their logic,” Tkach said.
Late Saturday, in an effort to solve the dispute over Uman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed Likud Minister Ze'ev Elkin to coordinate the Uman issue. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Gamzu were involved in the decision.
THE QUESTION over travel to Uman led to an escalation between several haredi and other ministers and Gamzu. Last week, the commissioner even threatened to resign. However, he told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that, “I am a person who tries everything but quitting... I am determined. I have thick enough skin.”
He said that if he quits, it means that “they made it really, really so, so unbearable.” After all, he added, “No one is standing in line to replace me. I’m doing the job.”
Still, officials in the Health Ministry told KAN News that the cabinet meeting will be a “watershed” moment for the commissioner. If the cabinet does not approve his traffic signal plan, he may step down.
Gamzu said after a coronavirus cabinet meeting held about 10 days ago that, “Cabinet ministers expressed overwhelming support for the outlines I presented to them and for avoiding lockdown.”
At the same time, although Gamzu and haredi leaders have reportedly made progress on how synagogues will operate over the holidays, this question continues to be a point of contention. On Friday, Construction and Housing Minister Ya’acov Litzman threatened to leave the coalition if the government put the country under lockdown for the High Holy Days.
Sources close to the situation, however, told Israeli media that the minister was only making such statements to satisfy his constituency and had no intention of leaving the prime minister, with whom he has excellent relations.
Last week, Gamzu, Edelstein and ministers Litzman, Arye Deri and Izhar Shay met with ultra-Orthodox leaders and made what was described as “significant progress” toward a solution. Decisions have to be made about the number of people who can pray in each synagogue and whether services will be held inside, outside or both.
It is unlikely that a decision about a full closure will be made until close to Rosh Hashana, which starts on September 18. The prime minister has said he would base such a decision on the morbidity rate.
Last week, Gamzu said in an interview that a lockdown was “still on the table.” However, he added that a decision could not be made until at least September 10, when health officials could better gauge the impact of opening schools on the country’s infection rate.
Another item meant to be discussed on Sunday is further opening the skies for Israelis, such as allowing them to travel to and return from Cyprus, Georgia, Hungary and Austria without entering isolation.
Walla reported late Saturday that Israel is expected to declare the United Arab Emirates a “green state,” too, which would mean Israelis could travel there without entering quarantine on return, as well.
The first commercial flight to the UAE is expected to take place on Monday.
For the first time in a month, Israel passed 2,000 new daily cases.
The Health Ministry reported Friday evening that 2,066 people were diagnosed with the novel virus the day before. Some 1,831 people were diagnosed on Friday and another 644 between midnight and press time on Saturday.
There were 438 patients in serious condition, including 116 who were intubated, on Saturday night. Two people died on Saturday and several more on Friday, bringing the death toll to 906.
Reuters contributed to this report.