Coronavirus in the Holy City

How is the pandemic impacting the capital, and how is the municipality responding?

General view of the empty square outside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. For Fear of Coronavirus, Israel Closes all Borders decreasing the number of tourits. The government orders all bars, restaurants and malls to close in an effort to contain the spread of virus. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
General view of the empty square outside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020. For Fear of Coronavirus, Israel Closes all Borders decreasing the number of tourits. The government orders all bars, restaurants and malls to close in an effort to contain the spread of virus.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
In 1866, Jerusalemites were confronted with a serious threat to their health and lives – cholera – which raged across the city for three months and caused the deaths of hundreds of Jews. This comprised about a quarter of the city’s Jewish population. Dr. Rothzigel, the director of Rothschild Hospital, then the only Jewish hospital in the city, and his wife were among the victims.
As I write this, the number of our countrymen infected by coronovirus continues to rise, but no Israeli has died, thank God, making our present situation mercifully less devastating than that of 154 years ago. However, with close to a million residents, Jerusalem, like the rest of the country and the world, is facing difficult times, with concerns that the worst is yet to come.
What is the impact of the pandemic on the capital at this point?
At press time, universities and colleges, schools and kindergartens are closed, but after some vacillation, the Hebrew University this week launched its second semester via the Internet. Academic colleges in the city are expected to do the same in the coming days.
Some people are managing to work from home, but others have been released by their employers, many with no other source of income. Gyms are shuttered, with members trying to maintain their healthy routines via street jogs and YouTube workout videos. Restaurants, coffee shops and bars have closed down; some continue to provide takeout service, awaiting a government decision regarding support and compensation. The only Jerusalem-specific official relief thus far has come from the Interior Ministry, allowing owners to not to pay their arnona for a period and to defer payment of VAT at least until after Passover, for now.
Mahaneh Yehuda still has some customers shopping for provisions by day, but resembles a ghost town at night. Lines at pharmacies and supermarkets are long. A pharmacist in the Baka neighborhood explained the new rules in which only two customers at a time are permitted inside, so lines stretch on outside. To serve customers, pharmacists wear masks and gloves, which they change after every client. Only one person at a time is allowed in hospital elevators. At last count there were 33 Jerusalemites with coronavirus in the special quarantine areas of the hospitals.
Strolling into parks or playgrounds in the neighborhoods is strictly forbidden and President Ruby Rivlin has called on all citizens in the capital to remain at home and refrain from any non-essential walks outside. Worshipers are asked to refrain from going to the Kotel, and those who do are to refrain from kissing its stones. Mikvaot (ritual baths) for men are to be closed down, but not all haredim are adhering to that.
Public transportation (bus and light rail) has gone on limited service from Sunday to Thursday, ending at 10 p.m., and will stop completely over the weekend (Thursday night after 10 p.m. until Sunday morning). When buses are in service, tape on the front-row seats distances passengers from drivers, eliminating the seats reserved for the elderly and infirm and increasing passenger density. Meanwhile, buses and the light rail are nearly empty – with riders exchanging furtive glances at the slightest cough. For obvious reasons, traffic jams are no longer an issue. 
Palestinian workers from Judea and Samaria will be allowed to come in through the Kalandia checkpoint only if they agree to remain here in the city for two months. Hotel accommodation will be provided by the municipality.
ONE EARLY sign that something serious was amiss was the disappearance of tourists. Jerusalemites suddenly no longer saw large groups of pilgrims following flag-waving guides through city streets, the Old City, the Western Wall plaza and Christian holy sites. This is the result of the decision of the government, more specifically the Tourism Ministry, to bar any more tourists from entering the country, so the total clampdown on foreign visitors will not end anytime soon. One of the strongest pillars of the capital’s economy – tourism – has disappeared for now.
“We sought alternative solutions to replace the foreign tourists who left the country and canceled trips,” said Ilanit Malchior, director of the tourism branch of the Jerusalem Development Authority, “but we quickly understood that this was useless. Israelis across the country are staying in their homes; they won’t come to visit Jerusalem now either. So we have a problem with no apparent solution: hotels, restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and the whole complex that sustains tourism are shut down for an unknown length of time. Passover, which is peak tourist season, is lost; we have no clue what this summer will bring. Nobody knows how long coronavirus will be with us.”
Jacques Beracha, a tour guide specializing in Jerusalem and its holy sites, recounted sadly, “On January 8, I said goodbye to my last group, from South Africa; it is their summer vacation and they came to visit Christian holy sites. We had eight days of touring this wonderful city, and since they left – nothing, only cancellations from everywhere. The same goes for my colleagues. The last tourists left the country on March 15 and we have no idea if and when they will be back.”
Asked how bad it is for the guides, Beracha says it is beyond imagination.
“Most of us are independent. When you are a good and esteemed guide, your name becomes a trademark and the profit is good. But that is exactly what fails first – if you are independent, you have nothing to hold on to. All the tourism industry employees in hotels, restaurants and sites are sent on non-paid vacation, meaning they get some compensation from Bituah Leumi (National Insurance Institute), although it does not include tips, a significant part of the income. But independents have nothing. They are left to themselves.
“I have a pension from my former profession, but some of my colleagues are left with no income at all. What can they do?”
THE MUNICIPALITY is on top of the situation. Since last week, Mayor Moshe Lion has been holding a marathon of meetings with high-ranking officials and professionals, seeking solutions to a broad range of issues. The decision to shut down the education system until at least after Passover has created a variety of problems. Daycare centers and kindergartens are closed – interfering with or preventing parents from working. Thousands of preschool teachers and toddler caregivers have been sent packing.
To free up healthcare workers, the municipality on Wednesday morning decided to organize special programs for the children of all city medical staff. Two associations, Lev Ehad and Lavie, will work with the children – a few hundred of them – from three to nine years old – from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in small, separate groups, as required by the Health Ministry. The activities will take place in two schools that are empty of students – Fraenkel in French Hill and Yefe Nof in Beit Hakerem.
“We are facing a number of problems,” said Shaike El-Ami, director of the Ginot Ha’ir local council and community center. “We sent home hundreds of our employees, but consequently we don’t have the necessary funds for our community work. Our income is based on the services we provide; if we close the daycare centers and the kindergartens, we have no income. And it is not only the employees of the educational institutions; since we hold no cultural events, we no longer need a culture officer, and so on.
“Another key issue is how to give the best attention and care possible to the elderly in the neighborhoods. Our remaining staff members are making phone calls to check on seniors, even shopping for them or bringing their medication when necessary. Unusual times call for unusual measures.” 
Earlier this week, the Nofim residence for seniors in Kiryat Hayovel was contaminated and all of its tenants sent to isolation in their apartments. One of them however, aged 88, was infected and taken to a hospital. He is, at press time, one of four cases of Israelis seriously ill from the virus.
Jerusalem also has a homeless population that can be divided, roughly, in two parts. Gil Ribush, director of the welfare and community administration at Safra Square, says that about 250 homeless youth, aged between 16 and 26, have been identified by his service.
“We are in continual contact with them; we ensure they get the medical care they need and provide them their basic needs.
“Another part of Jerusalem’s homeless are a few additional elderly people who refuse to accept housing solutions provided by the municipality.” Ribush assures us that social workers keep in touch with them as well. Sometimes there are newcomers to life in the streets; Ribush asks residents to notify welfare services immediately in such cases.
“We have added a separate line to the municipal 106 call center. Any call that is connected to problems or needs of the elderly reaches welfare services directly and is taken care of. I call on all Jerusalemites to use this line.”
An additional source of concern, regarding the seniors, is the closure of all day centers for their population, where in normal times they can get attention from a social worker, some enrichment programs and two meals – breakfast and a hot lunch – before they are returned home by special shuttles.
“This is a real problem,” added Ribush, “and we are seriously concerned that for some of these aged persons, the solitude might be even a worse consequence than the virus. We have a network of volunteers who are doing their best to keep in touch with all of them, but they are isolated at home and this is bad.”
Ribush adds that municipal welfare services get additional support from city nonprofit organizations that provide services such as home visits, shopping and emotional support.
ON JERUSALEM’S east side, one major decision involved worshipers avoiding large public prayer sessions at al-Aksa Mosque – as recommended by both ministries of health, the Israeli and Palestinian. The Wakf Islamic trust announced that as of this week, only small groups of up to 10 worshipers will be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount plaza outside of the mosque. According to the 0202 website that monitors and translates several semi-official sites and Facebook accounts, there have been clarion calls to obey to the rules to maintain a safe "social distance" between people, to report each case of risky behavior and to close down all public sites.
Arshaf, a 60-year-old van driver for tourists who is now out of work, says that people in his neighborhood, Beit Hanina, are quite worried.
“The children don’t go to school, everything is closed and we are even afraid to use the light rail, for fear of contamination. So people remain at home, but it’s not easy. We don’t know how long this will take.