The government stepped up its efforts to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox sector on Monday, especially in Bnei Brak, where the rate of infection is extremely high. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday night that the police and army would begin enforcing compliance with the shutdown regulations in all areas that were not complying, adding that it was a minority of the haredi population.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman reportedly is recommending a total lockdown of Bnei Brak due to the high numbers of residents infected with the coronavirus.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who was appointed by the government on Sunday to head the response to the coronavirus outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors, appointed Yehudah Avidan to coordinate activities within the haredi community.
A quarantine center has been established at the Or Hahayim girls school in Bnei Brak and will begin functioning on Tuesday, Avidan told The Jerusalem Post. Until now, people who require quarantine have had to remain in their homes.
Three treatment centers for the haredi sector in hotels have also been designated, including one at Kibbutz Lavi in the North and one at the Kinar Hotel by Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
Avidan said his team and the municipal authorities are beginning to go house to house to check the status of residents and find those who may be infected and need testing and quarantine.
Deri said the current strategy is to remove those infected with the coronavirus from their place of residence and isolate them in the specially designated hotels.
“In the ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors there are families with large numbers of children and many families on the lower socioeconomic level, and therefore we are working quickly to isolate the ill and prevent the spread of the disease,” he said.
Litzman again requested a lockdown for Bnei Brak, meaning no one would be allowed in or out, Channel 12 reported. A decision has yet to be taken.
Most Bnei Brak residents were complying with the Health Ministry’s social-distancing orders, Bnei Brak Deputy Mayor Gedalyahu Ben Shimon told the Post. He said he was against a lockdown of the city.
“If there are people violating the orders, then the police should arrest them,” Ben Shimon said.
“There are people gathering on the beaches in Tel Aviv, so why is a closure on Tel Aviv not being ordered? Why should Bnei Brak be tarnished like this?” he asked.
The Bnei Brak Municipality was not responsible for the slow response to the epidemic in the city, Ben Shimon said. He blamed the government for “inconsistent messaging and instructions.”
A lack of exposure to news information among much of the haredi community due to its aversion to smartphones and Internet is another reason it has been slow to react to the spread of the virus, as well as its trust in the community’s leading rabbis, Ben Shimon said.
“The ones who determine what happens in the ultra-Orthodox community are the rabbis, and just like it took time for state officials to understand the size of the tragedy that the coronavirus poses, so, too, it took them [the rabbis] time as well,” he said.
In Jerusalem, police dispersed hundreds of haredi men in the Mea She’arim neighborhood Monday morning, following efforts to convince the community to comply with social-distancing orders.
Police found people congregating in local synagogues for prayer services, as well as other gatherings in the streets and individuals out of their homes without good reason, violating Health Ministry orders.
The police gave 25 people NIS 5,000 fines for violating orders not to gather in groups larger than 10, and five people fines of NIS 500 for straying more than 100 meters from their homes for a nonessential needs.
Additionally, a shtiblach, a synagogue with multiple prayer services at the same time, was closed by the police for 30 days for violating Health Ministry orders.
Four men were arrested during police patrols in the neighborhood.
In an incident not connected to the police operation, a Magen David Adom team came to Mea She’arim to perform a coronavirus test but was attacked and stoned by extremists. One member of the team was lightly injured, and the windshield of their vehicle smashed.
“Miraculously, he was only slightly injured in the shoulder… A complaint will be filed with the police,” Magen David Adom said in a statement to the press.
In Bnei Brak, police broke up a distribution point for Passover food where more than 100 people had gathered.
The new efforts by the police come following the release of data showing extremely high rates of coronavirus infection within the haredi community and reports that in some major hospitals 40% to 60% of coronavirus patients were ultra-Orthodox.
Extremists in radical neighborhoods such as Mea She’arim have openly flouted social-distancing orders and continued to congregate for prayer services, weddings and funerals, leading to heightened police action in recent days.