Gov’t makes a U-turn: No Hanukkah restrictions as infection rises

More than 1,800 new cases in the last day

Is Israel about to open up after the second national lockdown? (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Is Israel about to open up after the second national lockdown?
Only days after the coronavirus cabinet announced that Israel would be under night curfew during Hanukkah, the government decided instead Thursday to place no new restrictions on the country during the holiday.
“Today, we made three decisions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday. “The first decision was short-term about Hanukkah. The second decision was about tightened restraint and the third was about a full lockdown.
“Indeed, because legal problems arose regarding the night curfew during Hanukkah, we said that we would go to the next two stages,” he continued. “I hope that we will not reach them but this is the reason. It is not that we made a U-turn.”
But for the public, a U-turn is exactly the way it appears: On Monday, the cabinet voted in favor of the curfew. On Tuesday, the ministers were informed that there could be legal challenges to such a move. On Wednesday, the Health Ministry recommended that commercial establishments close by 5.30 p.m. and that people who gather in each others’ homes or at synagogues after that time will be subject to a fine.
On Thursday, the government decided on the following scenario: Over Hanukkah, Israel will maintain its current level of restrictions. If at any point Israel exceeds 2,500 new coronavirus cases a day or reaches a reproduction rate (R) of 1.32, a period of “tightened restraint” will be applied.
This tightening will last three weeks. If at the end of that period, the reproduction rate falls to one or lower, the current restrictions will be reimposed. If the R rate has risen or remains at its current level, the country will head into a lockdown.
During the period of tightened restraint, shops, malls and marketplaces would be closed. Gatherings would be limited to 10 people in closed spaces and 20 in open spaces. The education system would stay open in green and yellow cities, but would close in orange and red ones.
Public transportation will also be limited to 50% occupancy.
The number of new cases a day is increasing by around 40% a week. It is expected that the country will reach 2,500 daily cases in a week to three weeks.
The vote was reportedly supported by all the ministers except Science and Technology Minister Yizhar Shay, who opposed it and Economy Minister Amir Peretz and Agriculture Minister Alon Schuster who abstained.
“We will give up the matter of additional restrictions for the coming week,” Health Minister Edelstein said at the cabinet meeting, after he returned from a private meeting with Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz. Instead, he said, “we will run a hasbara campaign to encourage people not to host each other on Hanukkah.”
Edelstein’s announcement came against the backdrop of another day of growing infection.
At the start of the meeting, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat said that, “We are on the rise in terms of the data. We have crossed the breaking point of the second wave.”
The Health Ministry reported that 1,849 people were diagnosed with the virus on Wednesday, plus another 807 between midnight and press time on Thursday, with 575 people being treated in hospital, including 321 in serious condition.
“There is a real problem,” Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy said shortly after the meeting during a press briefing. “The infection rate is 1.24, which is high. In the targets, we wanted to be below 1.28, and now the R is on the rise.”
He said that the morbidity cuts across sectors. There are 32 red cities and 35 orange cities.
The Health Ministry had come to the cabinet with the message that there is a real fear of another dangerous jump in morbidity during Hanukkah due to the large number of gatherings and candle lighting events expected in the evening.
As stated, ministry professionals were pushing for banning people from gathering after 5.30 p.m. and shuttering all stores but those that sell essential items.
“We are trying to cause minimal harm to the economy and society, and to prevent the spread of the disease,” Edelstein said at the start of the meeting. “There is no argument that there is a steady increase.”
A senior adviser to the cabinet told The Jerusalem Post that the ministers wanted to open up commerce. The night curfew was intended to appear as if it would offset the opening of malls across the country, although nearly all health professionals had stressed since September that night curfews were ineffective.
He said that not only is it unlikely that restrictions will voluntarily be maintained over Hanukkah and that infection will steady, but that it is also unlikely that the ministers will adhere to the threshold they set – to send Israel back to lockdown.
“The government has never kept its promises to take unpopular actions once we hit some level and they are not going to start now,” he said.
The cabinet is known to be swayed by pressure from interest groups and populism and these decisions appear to fit the trend.
In practice, the Health Ministry’s proposal came off the table because too many ministers opposed it, such as Finance Minister Israel Katz.
“The proposals mean severe damage to tens of thousands of business owners who have just returned to activity and to hundreds of thousands of employed people who will return to the cycle of unemployment,” Katz stressed at the meeting.
And even before the meeting, Shay had expressed opposition in a Thursday morning interview with Army Radio. He said the original intention was to make these rules for orange and red cities and not cities across the country.
“It does not make sense to close people in green localities,” he stressed. “Logic needs to be found.”
He said with four months until the mass of people are vaccinated, it does not make sense to close the economy now.