Coronavirus: Israel readies for first steps toward exiting lockdown

Police issue nearly 8,000 tickets over Simchat Torah holiday * 12 people die of virus on Saturday

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 7, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19
(photo credit: YONATHAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
The country is preparing to take its first steps toward exiting the nationwide lockdown as early as this week.
The coronavirus cabinet is expected to meet on Tuesday and a spokesperson for the Health Ministry told The Jerusalem Post that some restrictions could be lifted as early as Wednesday. However, he said it was likely that nothing would change until next Sunday.
The holiday of Simhat Torah ended with the police handing out 7,523 tickets to people who violated lockdown restrictions were issued between noon Friday and noon on Saturday, police said. 
Most tickets were given to people who left their homes for an unauthorized purpose (5,477), while others were for not wearing a mask (1,486), breaking isolation (95), gathering in a prohibited place (298) and violating various business rules (64).
In one incident, police tracked down a coronavirus patient who was praying in a synagogue at Moshav Ahihud, as well as 15 other worshipers who gathered inside against regulations. The sick patient was given a NIS 5,000 fine.
Police also nabbed a confirmed coronavirus patient at a checkpoint at an entrance to Tel Aviv. When the patient and other passengers who were with him were asked what they were doing, they told officers they had come to walk around the city. They too were fined and sent home.
Police also stepped up enforcement Saturday night as thousands protested against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and haredim were expected to take part in large gatherings in a final celebration of Simhat Torah.
“In these complex days, I call on the entire public to take responsibility, to respect the law, to avoid violence and violations, so that together we can get through this difficult period and stop the spread of the virus as soon as possible,” Acting police commissioner Moti Cohen said in a statement Saturday night.
The number of people becoming infected with the virus does seem to be dropping in all sectors, according to the Health Ministry.
On Saturday night, it reported that some 2,925 people were diagnosed with coronavirus the day before – 7.8% of the 37,308 people screened. 
Some 845 patients were deemed in serious condition Saturday night, including 232 who were intubated.
The death toll rose to 1,914 – 12 people died between midnight and press time on Saturday.
Among the fatalities was a police officer from the Tel Aviv District, Channel 12 reported. He contracted the virus in the line of duty and was later hospitalized and intubated at Tel Aviv’s Sourasky Medical Center, where he eventually passed away.
If the infection rate drops to 2,000 new patients per day and a reproduction rate (R) of .08 or lower is achieved, the government is expected to approve the start of its exit strategy. Coronavirus Commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu and the Health Ministry have proposed a nine-stage exit plan that would take four months to complete.
Over the weekend, Gamzu told Channel 12 that there is a decline in morbidity and that the country could see a first stage of reduced restrictions as early as this week.
“I am definitely in favor of reducing restrictions,” Gamzu told the station. “We think there will be some specific areas in which the lockdown will have to continue” in its current format.
Although he said there could be 10 to 15 “red” cities or neighborhoods that would not open up with the rest of the country. Currently, there are still 14 cities that meet Gamzu’s red zone criteria that was laid out in September as part of his “traffic light” program.
Those cities, currently, are Ashdod, Bnei Brak, Elad, Hadera, Lod, Modi’in Illit, Netanya, Netivot, Ramle, Rechasim, Rehovot, and some neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem. Of course, as the infection rate drops, their designation could change.
Also, on Thursday, the country’s head of Public Health, Sharon Alroy-Preis, said that in the first stages of the easing the whole country would be viewed as a red zone regardless of specific infection rates in various cities.
Gamzu said in interviews that schools would not open in red areas.
Some of the ministers have pushed back about how long the exit plan is expected to take, especially that children in grades five through 12 would not return to their classrooms before some time in January, if all goes as planned.
There is a possibility that some stages in the plan could be combined, but a decision on this would likely only be made at a later date.
If the country does begin to open up, the first stage will include opening preschools, allowing non-customer facing businesses to operate in full, resuming flights to and from Ben-Gurion Airport and abolishing the one kilometer limit on travel from home.
This stage would also probably allow protests to resume in their previous form, families to meet, beaches to open and restaurants to open for takeaway.
Two weeks are expected to pass between every stage of the exit strategy. Grades one through four open in stage two, as well as synagogues. Grades five through 12 would open in stage seven, which would likely be around January 10.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant said he plans to push to change this outline, bringing with him to the meeting on Tuesday statistics that show that in non-haredi schools the infection rate is low. According to numbers he prepared last week in conjunction with the Health Ministry, 51% of infected students were from the haredi sector. Non-haredi schools throughout the country had only between 3% and 9% of school infections. A report on Channel 12 showed that out of 510 schools, only 138 general or non-Jewish schools had infection. Some 372 haredi schools had sick students.
Finally, Gamzu visited Julis, a Druze village and local council in the North, on Saturday and addressed the importance of allowing local authorities to lead in the battle against coronavirus.
“Authorities need to receive a budget, resources, authority, help and understanding,” Gamzu said. “One of the most important things is to make the government understand that local authorities can manage their coronavirus response.”
Last week, some 200 mayors participated in an online meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the National Security Council and the public security minister. During that meeting, it was decided that Haim Bibas, head of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, will attend coronavirus cabinet meetings.
Gamzu’s traffic light program heavily relies on the work of municipalities.
Gamzu was hosted in Julis by Shaykh Mowafaq Tarif, leader of Israel’s Druze community, who reviewed the steps the community has taken to stop gatherings, such as large weddings and local annual celebrations, to help reduce infection. He said he had instructed that events do not take place in people’s homes but rather in event halls and according to Health Ministry regulations.
At the end of the visit, Gamzu stressed the importance of being screened for coronavirus and called on the Druze leaders to encourage community members to get tested.