Coronavirus cabinet approves: Synagogues open, stores to remain closed

Senior officials in the Health Ministry had warned the prime minister that opening retail was dangerous and could lead to increased morbidity.

Demonstration of the Independents on Jaffa Street in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: SASSONI AVSHALOM)
Demonstration of the Independents on Jaffa Street in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: SASSONI AVSHALOM)
The coronavirus cabinet met late into the night on Thursday to discuss the second stage of the country's exist strategy, which is expected to begin on Sunday. It approved many things, but left street shops closed, despite protests by owners that they could not survive.
The cabinet approved opening classes for grades one through four, allowing one-on-one activities and services (driving lessons or personal training) to resume, alternative medical treatments to be offered, and for salons and bed and breakfasts to open.
It also agreed to allow up to 10 people to pray in synagogues. Haredi ministers had pressured the cabinet to allow more people to worship together, but the request was rejected. 
In addition, the ministers agreed to reduce the nine-stage exit strategy originally outlined by the Health Ministry to six stages, which had been presented earlier in the week by the National Security Council.
Small business owners took to the streets on Thursday as the cabinet convened, begging the government to allow them to operate. However, ultimately, the cabinet decided to push off opening street shops another week, until November 8, unless there was a significant drop in infection. 
"I know how hard it is," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday in a video message. "I ask you to partner with me for another few days."
Senior officials in the Health Ministry had warned the prime minister that opening retail was dangerous and could lead to increased morbidity.
The head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben-Shabbat, together with coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu, presented the situation, to the cabinet the main points of which are as follows: Israel indeed meets the threshold conditions to move to the next stage, but the situation is fragile.
It was pointed out that there has been an increase in the basic reproduction number; morbidity in the Arab sector is high and a cause for concern; the scope of tests has increased but is still low relative to both the past and what is anticipated; and the effects of opening the lockdown have yet to be seen.
As such, health officials warned that opening up stores could cause the third stage of the exit strategy to be delayed.
There were 688 new cases of the virus on Wednesday, the Health Ministry reported Thursday evening. Some 440 people were in serious condition, including 191 who were intubated. The death toll held at 2,508.
On Thursday morning, the government approved in a telephone vote the extension of the state of emergency due to the coronavirus for another 60 days, from November 5 to January 3. This decision will take effect upon its approval by the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.
It had also made a final decision on how schools would look when they opened on Sunday.
The coronavirus cabinet approved a plan on Thursday for returning children in first through fourth grade to school on Sunday. The plan combines in-class studies with distance learning.
According to the new plan, children in grades one through four will each learn four days per week in capsules of no more than 20 students. Municipalities, like Jerusalem, that can offer students more classroom time can do so. 
Special education students will return for a full day beginning early next week, the Education Ministry said. 
For the full explanation of how schools will operate, click here >> 
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the start of the cabinet meeting that the outline could be re-evaluated over the next two weeks. A formal announcement sent after midnight on Thursday said that the stages for opening grade five and up would be determined in the coming weeks. 
“This is an opening that we will re-evaluate over the next two weeks,” the prime minister reiterated later in an evening briefing, “and I expect that we will find an even better outline than this one.”
He said it depends on staffing, logistics and budget, though he would not let budget be the deciding factor.
“When there is no other choice, you have to act,” Netanyahu said at a briefing Thursday afternoon. “We acted... We saved a lot of lives.”
But he cautioned that the virus “is definitely not behind us” and Israel “cannot become complacent.” He said that while Israel is lifting restrictions, if one city or another has an increase in infection, “I will recommend locking it down – it does not matter what city it is.”
While the decision on opening schools was made quickly, the battle over retail that started earlier in the week continued throughout the entire day on Thursday.
Finance Minister Israel Katz maintained that street shops had to open immediately because otherwise they are going to close forever. But Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said being careful means “not taking big bites.”
“We already see in recent days that opening up a minimal amount has an impact,” the health minister warned at the cabinet meeting. “Opening the economy rashly is the beginning of the next closure. Whoever pushes to exit quickly is operating out of populism, and in the end, will harm the businesses he claims to speak for.”
Head of Public Health Services Sharon Alroy-Preis recommended waiting to allow retail to open until there was an average of 500 new sick people per day.
“If all the stages open like this we will never get to the next stage,” she said.
But the small business owners said they cannot wait. At the protest on Thursday, one store owner, who was filmed by Channel 12, told the government that business owners were going to die – hang themselves, commit suicide.
“There is nothing left,” he maintained, “just to die. There is nothing.”
Finally, the Health Ministry updated its list of “red” and “green” countries on Thursday and Israelis who return from red countries must quarantine upon their return.
As of November 1, Italy, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Serbia will be considered red countries. The updated list of green countries now includes Iceland, Estonia, the Seychelles, Denmark, Hong Kong, Greece, New Zealand, Finland, Canada, Cyprus, Rwanda, Australia, Uruguay, the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, Norway, Singapore, Cuba and Thailand. Israelis who return from these countries do not have to enter quarantine.
The Health Ministry said the list will re-evaluated on November 9.