Thousands take to streets, gov't flip-flops on coronavirus restrictions

Status of restaurants and schools unclear · Death toll rises to 400

Protesters in Tel Aviv speak out against the government’s mismanagement of the crisis (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Protesters in Tel Aviv speak out against the government’s mismanagement of the crisis
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Thousands of Israelis took to the streets across the country Saturday night to protest the latest coronavirus restrictions and the government’s management of the crisis. As the number of sick people continues to shoot up, the government’s flip flopping has left the public frustrated and confused.
There were 1,595 people diagnosed with coronavirus on Friday – a high number for the weekend, when much fewer tests are taken. Between midnight and press time on Saturday, 1,163 people tested positive.
The Health Ministry reported that 217 people were in serious condition, and that five more people died over the weekend, bringing the country’s death toll to 400.
Late Friday afternoon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz issued a statement that they would allow restaurants to remain open until 5 a.m. on Tuesday – altering a decision made Thursday overnight by the government.
Restaurants were supposed to revert to takeaway and delivery beginning on Friday, but Netanyahu and Gantz said the decision could be put off allowing for preparations and because the restaurants had already purchased food for their weekend customers.
However, the confusion led to customers canceling their reservations and restaurant owners selling at cost or donating their food. Some restaurants did not open at all. Signs on restaurant windows read: “You are killing us” and “What about our suppliers?”
In several interviews restaurant heads and chefs said they wanted only one thing: a clear plan that would get them through the coronavirus crisis.
The retraction of the Friday decision was made after several restaurants announced they would not adhere to the new coronavirus directives anyway, and amid strong protest by the Association of Restaurants and politicians.
“Once again, we are witnessing the capricious and irresponsible conduct of a government that has lost its way,” the association said in a statement, stressing that they had already stocked up on raw materials that would otherwise be thrown away or donated.
“The arbitrary decision to close the restaurants again is a death sentence for the industry,” accused MK Avigdor Liberman in a Facebook post. “Restaurants that opened after a long period of closure, that had to adapt themselves at record speed to the changing restrictions, are now forced to close again without prior notice.”
He called on the government to overturn the decision.
“Do you know the words ‘civil rebellion?’” Liberman teased. “If you do not start behaving logically, within a few days you will see one with your own eyes.”
But restaurant owners are not the only ones who are unsure of what the future holds, after ministers left Thursday’s late-night meeting without deciding about the education system.
A message from the Prime Minister’s Office early Friday explained that “decisions about camps and other educational programs will be determined in the coming days by the prime minister and alternate prime minister, in consultation with the finance, health and education ministers.”
The intention is to examine where there is a realistic possibility of studying in capsules under the directives of the Health Ministry. If not, then the goal will be to keep schools open for another week to allow parents to better prepare for the situation and thereby minimize negative impact on the students, parents and economy.
But the Finance Ministry has not agreed to fund the expensive capsule system (despite that each day that schools and camps are closed costs the country NIS 300 million), and municipal leaders and parents will not accept that these programs will cease to operate.
N12 reported that parents are organizing a massive protest against school and camp closings to take place early in the week.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant has argued that out of 700,000 students, only 895 have coronavirus, the Education Ministry reported – about a tenth of a percent.
Gallant charged last week that the Health Ministry does not make data-driven decisions but rather “intuitive choices without the facts. I am opposed to closing the schools and camps.”
On Friday, the director-general of the Rashi Foundation NGO warned that closing the education system could lead to fatal damage to the weaker sectors of society and force hundreds or even thousands of parents to join the cycle of unemployment.
“There is no health and economic logic in closing the education system,” said Rashi director-general Michal Cohen, who served as a former director-general of the Education Ministry. “The data shows that infection in schools is very low and the economic price that the weaker classes will absorb as a result of closing the system is unbearable.”
A senior Health Ministry official harshly criticized the country’s ministers and Knesset members, calling their decision-making “delayed” and “irresponsible.”
In a statement released by N12 on Saturday night, the official said, “The ministers and Knesset members are populists and do not understand the magnitude of the incident.” The official added that, “if they had not acted in such an irresponsible manner, and had approved what we asked for, we would not have had to reach this state of such severe restrictions. There is great difficulty in passing decisions in this government because everyone thinks he is the Messiah.”
Thousands took to the streets Saturday night at Charles Clore Park in Tel Aviv and in front of the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem in protest of the chaos and the impact on Israeli’s social and economic lives.
In past weeks, clashes between the police and protesters have erupted. Police sent hundreds of officers to both locations Saturday night to help maintain order and traffic flow and minimize disruption, calling on participants to observe Health Ministry directives, social distancing, and urged them to wear masks.
Protesters nonetheless clashed with police as they blocked Paris square in Jerusalem and Herbert Samuel Street in Tel Aviv.
In Tel Aviv, protesters sprayed pepper gas at a police commander and threw a torch at police, amid violence directed towards officers in the area. The police declared the protest illegal late on Saturday night and warned the remaining protesters that anyone who stayed at the site would be arrested. Thirteen suspects were arrested on Saturday night in the city for harming police officers, torching trash cans and inciting violence.

Jerusalem Police have faced criticism in recent days for the repeated use of high-intensity water cannons to disperse peaceful protesters. Videos on social media showed additional use of the cannons on Saturday, with one video even showing the riot truck spraying at bystanders walking down the street. Fifteen protesters were arrested on Saturday night for disturbing the public order and attacking police.
Earlier in the day, a series of “Black Flag” movement protesters demonstrated at intersections and bridges throughout the country.
Israel Police stepped up enforcement of the new restrictions over the weekend as well, sending a message to the public that, “police will focus on prohibiting gatherings, enforcing mask wearing and ensuring that people required to be in quarantine stay there.”
By Saturday afternoon, the police reported that they had issued 2,780 fines to people not wearing their masks, as well as nearly two dozen tickets to restaurants and businesses operating contrary to Health Ministry directives.
Among the most recent diagnoses are one resident and two employees of the Mishan senior living center in Beersheba. During the first coronavirus peak, the center had a sizable outbreak that led to the death of 14 residents.
An additional employee of the facility tested positive on Monday.
The Health Ministry Magen Avot v’Imahot program is meant to catch corona quickly in elderly homes through regular testing. So far, the country has fared much better at this task during this second peak than during the first time around.
More than 600 people checked into state-run “coronavirus hotels” on Thursday – a record since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Defense Ministry said Friday. Last week, a total of 1,800 Israelis moved into these hotels.
The Defense Ministry also said on Friday that it has provided an aid package to the “red zone” city of Beitar Illit, like the packages it has provided to other cities under closure. The assistance includes “hasbara” – public awareness – funds to help inform citizens of the Health Ministry directives and the availability of coronavirus hotels, as well as food packages and other support.
Idan Zonshine contributed to this report.