The Education and Health ministries have agreed that middle schoolers will return to their classrooms next Sunday, May 17.
Classes of 20 children each will meet two or three days per week, depending on whether or not they share their building with older kids. Students and teachers will be required to wear masks.
No decision was reached regarding kids in grades four through six, who will continue with full-time distant learning.
To the frustration of many parents, schools – many which only opened this week or last – will be closed on Tuesday for Lag Ba’omer, despite efforts by the Finance Ministry to convince the Teachers Union otherwise.
The Finance Ministry sent a letter to Teachers Union head Yaffa Ben-David in which it recommended that schools open on Tuesday, and in exchange school would be canceled on an upcoming Friday this year and one next year.
In response, the union responded: “I am sorry that you continue to misrepresent the facts. Ms. Ben-David sees no point in such unnecessary correspondence, the sole purpose of which is the ongoing deception and misconduct of the public toward the country’s teaching staff.”
The Education Ministry refused to intervene and so no decision for change was reached, leaving parents without an option for their children on Lag Ba’omer.
At the same time, the Finance Ministry aims to bring forward the reopening of the battered restaurant and cafe sector as early as May 20 under new proposals that officials will present to the Health Ministry later this week.
The plan, expected to be discussed at a meeting on Wednesday by the two ministries, is based on the formulation of a restaurant-specific set of “purple badge” hygiene standards and comes as the number of coronavirus cases continues to decline.
The number of active cases dropped to 4,406 on Monday morning – among them only 58 who are intubated. So far, 258 people have died.
While the government’s coronavirus exit strategy plan includes the reopening of restaurants at the end of May or in mid-June, the Finance Ministry’s plan follows an appeal by Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai last week to reopen restaurants and bars at an earlier date, warning that waiting until at least the end of May will result in many shutting down.
“In light of the infection data and the importance of returning employees and the economy to operations, we suggest bringing forward the reopening of restaurants and cafés to May 20,” wrote Ran Kiviti, director of the Finance Ministry’s Small and Medium Businesses Agency, in a letter to Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto.
Citing wide ranging discussions with representatives of the restaurant sector, the Finance Ministry’s restaurant-specific “purple badge” criteria are in addition to standards required for all industries, including employee health questionnaires, temperature checks, disinfection of surfaces, maintaining distances between waiting customers and the supply of hygiene products.
For restaurants and cafés, additional demands include washing dishes at 70°C, kitchen staff always wearing masks, cleaning chairs and tables after every diner, and setting the table only after customers are sitting down. A distance of one meter will be required between tables, and 40 centimeters between the backs of chairs. Customers will need to wear masks when entering and leaving the restaurant.
According to data published by the Finance Ministry last week, approximately 64,400 restaurant industry employees are currently seeking unemployment benefits. Only the education sector, with 65,000 impacted employees, exceeded those impacted by the coronavirus outbreak in the restaurant industry.
Speaking to reporters last week, Israel Restaurants Association CEO Shai Berman accused the government of “cheating” the nation’s restaurateurs and bar owners, and calling government assistance packages “one big bluff.”
“We have seen IKEA opening, the malls opening and the gyms opening, and we cannot understand why we are closed – we feel cheated,” Berman said.
“We watch pretentious press conferences every evening at prime time, hearing the prime minister and Tax Authority director talking about how they are transferring money to us at the push of a button. The vast majority of workers and entrepreneurs in the restaurant sector have not seen one shekel of assistance.”
AT THE SAME time, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality and others are pushing the Health Ministry to open beaches, but thus far, the ministry has refused. On Monday, it released a public statement saying that “the subject is being discussed with the relevant municipalities. Only after the standards we set for ensuring the public’s health are able to be met will the beaches be allowed to open.”
Earlier in the day, the municipality had submitted its plan for immediate return to the beaches, which it called “Blue Sea, Purple Ribbon” and presented a proposal ensuring that beach goers would keep two meters apart and strictly adhere to the ministry’s hygiene guidelines.
“After many weeks of closure, the people of Israel need some air,” Huldai said.
However, the cabinet did approve some amendments to emergency regulations and made a decision to allocate NIS 6 million to returning Israelis from abroad during a late night meeting on Sunday.
Now, Israelis entering the country who can prove the ability to self-quarantine in their home or another private residence will no longer be required to enter a “coronavirus hotel.” If they do not have a place to stay, a hotel will be made available at the state’s expense.
The cabinet approved a rule that people returning from abroad cannot take public transportation to their place of quarantine, except for cabs, in order to prevent potential infection. Travelers must wear masks and keep windows open on their drive to their place of isolation.
Any traveler who is in violation of these rules will be fined and required to complete the quarantine in a hotel.
So far, there have been 5,534 isolated or ill patients in the quarantine hotels, of whom 3,134 have returned to their homes, according to the IDF.
Twenty-three hotels and hostels were opened by the Defense Ministry through the Home Front Command: 12 recovery hotels for patients who had minor cases of coronavirus and 11 isolation hotels for Israelis returning from abroad. About half of the hotels are privately owned and about half were part of larger hotel chains, the Defense Ministry said, adding that about half a million meals costing NIS 79 million were served to occupants.
To date, according to deputy head of procurement in the Defense Ministry Bracha Hertz, all but four of the hotels are closed.
The cabinet put police in charge of enforcing the quarantine with the assistance of Population and Immigration Authority inspectors.
For local Israelis, some restrictions were also eased.
The public may sit or walk in public parks or playgrounds and may take advantage of outdoor exercise equipment, maintaining the two-meter distance required from others. Municipalities will oversee the cleanliness of the equipment.
The restriction on using playgrounds in public parks or other public areas is still in effect.
The cabinet also reduced restrictions on the activity of businesses and stores in the evening hours during Ramadan in communities where the majority of residents are Muslims. Going forward, this restriction will only be applied to “hot” or “red” zones with a high level of infection.
Finally, patients undergoing psychiatric treatment are no longer required to wear masks even if they are less than three meters from their care provider.
The new emergency regulations are in effect through Tuesday, May 19.
The government approved on Monday new criteria for unemployment benefit applications, shortening the required work period to just six months prior to being laid off. In addition, the eligibility period for benefits was extended until the end of May for all claimants whose benefits were scheduled to expire at an earlier date.
MEANWHILE, Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, who is most associated with the fight against coronavirus and has been directly involved in determining the country’s emergency regulations, has denied a report by the Hebrew website Ynet that he is considering stepping down from his role.
Bar Siman Tov has recently received harsh criticism from members of the government and media for his conservative stance against lifting restrictions even as the number of active cases of coronavirus has been declining.
Director-generals are almost always typically replaced and Bar Siman Tov’s resignation could be an attempt by him to set the terms of his departure without being seen as if he was dismissed by the incoming minister, whomever that may be.
“Maybe he is concerned he won’t get along with the new minister and wants to prepare the ground for his departure,” a former Health Ministry director-general told the Post. “It is common that a new minister has the right to nominate his own director-general.”
Finance Ministry director-general Shai Babad formally announced on Monday that he would be leaving his role after five years leading the ministry’s operations.
Babad, who assumed the position in June 2015, informed incoming Finance Minister Israel Katz that he would step down following the swearing-in of the new government and imminent ministerial change. The exact date of Babad’s departure will be decided in due course.
“During the past five years, I have been granted the greatest privilege of my life to service the citizens of the State of Israel in one of the most influential and important positions in public service,” Babad said. “I thank Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon... I also wish Minister [Israel] Katz great success in the Finance Ministry. His success is our success.”