Gov’t to vote on plans for High Holiday coronavirus lockdown on Sunday

Businesses say they will open anyway * Debate expected around education, prayer and the airport

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (right) leads a prayer for stopping the spread of coronavirus pandemic at the Western Wall on July 21 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef (right) leads a prayer for stopping the spread of coronavirus pandemic at the Western Wall on July 21
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
The government will convene on Sunday to vote on locking down the country for at least two weeks beginning on September 18, a move that could cost as much as NIS 20 billion. The meeting comes as the number of new daily and hospitalized patients skyrockets.
Some 3,962 patients were diagnosed with coronavirus on Friday, according to the Health Ministry, and another 2,200 between midnight and press time. The number of hospitalized patients reached a new high of 1,018 and the number in serious condition surged to 495, among them 138 who were intubated. Some 1,101 people have died.
Nonetheless, as the government convenes on Sunday there is expected to be much negotiation and dissent to the plan to enact a full closure.
Businesses are not expected to take the decision sitting down. Many are even saying they will take the law into their own hands and open anyway, insisting they have nothing to lose.
And some health experts say that despite the spike in cases, it is not the right decision, anyway.
“Complete lockdown is a very inefficient tool,” Dr. Eyal Leshem, director of the Center for Travel Medicine and Tropical Diseases at Sheba Medical Center told The Jerusalem Post. “The cost is very high. Yes, it will be effective in reducing the number of infections. But the minute it stops, we will be back to square one.”
Leshem said what is needed is strong regulation and enforcement of restrictions on mass gatherings, not for people to stop going to work.
“We don’t see infections on manufacturing floors or in regulated settings,” he explained. “We see infections where there are mass gatherings. Stopping everyone from going to work has nothing to do with science.”
Leshem added that he does not believe decision makers are looking at the long-term costs, not only on the economy in general but also the health of the people of Israel.
“We are going to spend 20 billion shekels over the next month or so paying for a closure. In five or 10 years, we are going to miss these 20 billion shekels when we won’t have the money to build a bigger hospital in Beersheba and there will not be enough beds in hospitals and the healthcare system will struggle to save lives,” he said.
“This discussion of what is the cost of a closure on human life compared to less drastic measures that are effective does not occur.
“We shrug our shoulders and nod our heads and say, ‘nothing worked, so we must go to closure,’” Leshem continued. “But I don’t think real enforcement of mass events ever happened. And if we are back in mid-October holding mass events and doing everything else as normal, we are going to see another wave, right with the flu. Are we going to close down in December or January again? Do we have another 20 billion or 50 billion shekels to spend? This policy is not sustainable.”
The policy as it stands on Saturday night is to start a lockdown at 6 a.m. on Friday, but to close schools down as early as Wednesday.
During phase one, which is slated to last two weeks but could be extended, people will be forbidden from traveling more than 500 meters from their homes. All schools will cease to operate, except for special education institutions. Businesses that receive the public, as well as cultural and recreational institutions will also shut down. Restaurants will be open for delivery or takeout only.
The businesses that will be allowed to open are those that provide essential services, including grocery stores, pharmacies, opticians, hygiene stores, home care stores and those that sell telecommunications or medical supplies.
The plan does stipulate that activity should be reduced to 30% of the workforce in the workplace in the public sector and between 10 employees or 30% in the private sector, whichever is higher.
Public transport activity in each of the phases will be reduced and adjusted to the scope of activity in the economy.
The transition from stage one to stage two and ultimately three, which is restarting coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s traffic light plan, will be made based on evaluating the infection rate throughout the country.
But not all ministers are aligned. A senior official told Channel 12 the plan is “crazy and we will not allow it to pass.”
“I support a night closure in which about 80% of the economy remains open,” Economy Minister Amir Peretz said Saturday night. “Hundreds of thousands of employees and the self-employed are in existential anxiety. The economic coronavirus pandemic is no less severe than the health pandemic.”
He said he called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to immediately establish a team and determine a compensation package that is clear to everyone.
On the other side, hospitals say they are bursting at their seams.
The Health Ministry reported that Bnei Brak’s Mayanei HaYeshua Medical Center's coronavirus ward was at 133% capacity on Saturday night, and Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center's at 106%.
There were 2,255 coronavirus patients in Bnei Brak on Saturday night and 4,806 in Jerusalem.
“We are on the verge of collapse,” said the CEO of Haifa’s Bnai Zion Medical Center, Dr. Ohad Hochman. “Our medical staff is burning out and the decision makers need to take that into account.”
The Health Ministry showed Bnai Zion’s coronavirus ward at 59% capacity. However, Hochman said that “inadequacy cannot be determined solely by the number of difficult patients hospitalized. The medical staff has been working around the clock; they did not go on vacation and, moreover, they are performing some of the most difficult work.”
Health Ministry data is indicating a number of worrisome trends. For example, there is a steady increase in the number of cases outside the Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities. The people who are infected are getting older and hence are more likely to suffer from a serious case of COVID-19.
Also, the “R” – the number of people who are infected by a sick person – is continuing to rise. A month ago, it stood at one, today it is somewhere between 1.2 and 1.3.
And finally, if one looks at the data, more and more cities are becoming orange and red, making it hard to carry out solely targeted closures.
Sheba Medical Center Deputy Director-General Arnon Afek told the Post that he and some of his colleagues sent a statement to the coronavirus cabinet raising a red flag over the situation. He said that the number of sick patients in Jerusalem and northern Israel is unsustainable and that if the numbers continue to increase within a few weeks, hospitals like his own might lose the capacity to treat, as well.
“We are in a state of health emergency that requires taking drastic measures throughout the country and without delay,” stressed the chairman of the Medical Association, Prof. Zion Hagay.
At the larger cabinet meeting on Sunday, it is expected that the two largest points of debate will center on an outline for High Holy Day prayer and schools.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant tweeted on Saturday night that “an active education system is essential for every child and every family and is a basic condition for operating the economy in Israel. The education of Israeli children must not be harmed.”
He wrote that he planned to propose to ministers to close the education system on Friday and reopen it immediately after Simchat Torah on October 11.
The outline ministers are expected to debate involves shutting schools as early as Wednesday and keeping them closed until at least October 15.
Israel’s National Preschool Committee called the government’s plan to close on Wednesday “delusional.”
“It is delusional that they have set a date for a general closure, but the educational institutions will be closed earlier,” they committee said in a statement. “Already, in the previous closure, we saw that the distance learning plan did nothing but make things difficult for parents.”
The committee called on parents not to cooperate with the government.
Since Thursday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, the outline for prayer has shifted as well, becoming quite complicated.
In red zones worshipers will be allowed to gather in open spaces in groups of up to 20 people. As for prayers inside a closed building – where the level of morbidity is high, they will be held in groups of up to 10 people, and the number of groups allowed will be calculated according to the number of entrances to the place. All this while maintaining a person’s ratio per four square meters of space.
In other zones, the number per capsule will increase so that as many as 1,000 worshipers could potentially attend prayer services in a synagogue.
Also, phase one requires shutting down Ben-Gurion Airport. But Transportation Minister Miri Regev is supposed to request that the airport stay open through the weekend to allow people who already bought travel tickets to use them.
In an interview with N12, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said he is not open to negotiations at Sunday’s meeting.
“I signed onto this plan and there will be no negotiations,” he told Dana Weiss, adding that the reason for the closure is that “we could not convince the public to keep the directives and so we are closing down.
“What is the alternative?” he asked. “I know there is a heavy price for the closure. For three months, we tried to stop it from happening, but we did not succeed.”
But Leshem said that “nobody in their right mind and with any professional knowledge” could have assumed a lockdown was not on the horizon.
“It was clear since May that once we returned from summer break we were going to see a sharp increase in the amount of infection and as we go into the High Holy Days the biology is very simple: When people get together, there is an increase in infection,” he told the Post.
According to media reports shared on Saturday night, business owners do not trust the government to take care of them, as many have still not recovered from the economic hit of the first wave.
On Saturday night, they took to the streets to protest the decision to lock down. Moreover, a letter was sent to Netanyahu over the weekend, signed by dozens of businesspeople and the head of the Histadrut and Local Authorities asking the prime minister to backtrack and stop the closure.
The letter said the recommendation to once again close business is “completely detached” from the impact it will have on businesses, which “are on the brink of an abyss.”
“Let us work,” the letter continued. “Do not further hinder our ability to recover from the first lockdown.”
They said that this time around, if they close, many of them will never open again.
If the country does shut down, as expected, Afek said he is hopeful that things will be different this time around.
“There was no exit strategy from the lockdown in May,” he told the Post. “This time we are thinking and planning [the exit strategy]. I do hope that history will not repeat itself.”