Facing widespread threats to defy government orders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the last minute backtracked on a decision to shut down all eateries, with the exception of deliveries and takeaways, from 5 p.m Friday, delaying the implementation of the open-ended ban until Tuesday morning, his office said.
The government order had only been approved overnight and was met with significant resistance among restauranteurs, who complained that the move, which they called “illegal,” would cause massive financial losses and food waste and that insufficient time was provided for the affected businesses to prepare themselves for the new restrictions.
Many had threatened to remain open in acts of civil disobedience.
Apparently heeding their calls, Netanyahu, together with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, decided to instead allow restaurants to remain open until 5.00 a.m Tuesday, July 21 “in order to allow time to prepare, and because stocks of food had already been purchased,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said Friday afternoon, just an hour before the order was to go into effect.
The statement said the latest decision would soon be ratified by the government.
The last-minute about-turn was also met with frustration from many restaurant owners, who said they had let go of staff and destroyed food in preparation for the closure.
“The announcement about opening the restaurants came just in time, about an hour after most of our staff were put on unpaid leave. Not angry at all,” the Halil restaurant in Ramle tweeted.
As Israel sees record-high numbers of new coronavirus infections, cabinet ministers agreed overnight on a series of new lockdown measures, including the open-ended closures of restaurants and gyms from Friday at 5 p.m. (While restaurants cannot serve patrons on site, they can provide takeout and delivery services.)
In response, a group of restaurants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba had announced their intention to remain open for business as usual, according to Channel 12 news.
One group of restaurants that intended to remain open issued a statement saying that they were not “subjects of a dictatorship,” complaining that the government could “not make a decision in the middle of the night” and that their “employees are not puppets,” the network reported.
The Israel Restaurants Association also protested the move.
“Once again we are witnessing the capricious and irresponsible conduct of a government that has lost its way. We cannot be expected to close our businesses with a few hours’ notice,” it said in a statement.
Leaders of the restaurant, cafe and bar industry called on the public to eat out, stating that “is our duty to fight for our business even if we become criminals,” reported public broadcaster Kan.
Several restaurants had announced they would at least stay open Friday night, to avoid wasting some of their food. “We bought produce worth thousands of shekels and we have no intention of throwing it away. We don’t think it’s right to throw it in the trash. We see no logic in allowing beaches to stay open and us not, and for sure not a ridiculous decision that comes via the TV in the middle of the night,” Assaf Liss, who owns a number of Tel Aviv dining spots, told Walla news.
Earlier this month, the Health Ministry released a document ranking daily activities in terms of their danger of exposure to the coronavirus which listed dining at indoor bars and restaurants as a high-risk activity.
And according to ministry figures released earlier this week, 21 people have become infected in restaurants and six in bars during the second wave, the Walla news site reported Friday.
“We are going through a difficult time, it is impossible, the decisions are arbitrary, we are stuck with a lot of goods,” one restauranteur in Tel Aviv told the news website, calling the move to close restaurants “arbitrary” and populist.
“My workers and I are being crushed and I feel like going like a sheep to the slaughter. Whoever runs our country has to go to a hearing because he runs it badly,” Moshiko Gamliel, owner of Tel Aviv’s Bar 51, told the site.
He said it seemed the decision to close the restaurants was made without due consideration and that “the state is spitting in our faces. We are afraid of fines but also afraid of going bankrupt.”
The owner of one cafe in Tel Aviv told Kan that he planned on giving away food he had already ordered and that he did not plan on opening at all on Sunday because switching over to delivery and takeout only was unprofitable.
“What is left goes in the trash,” he said.
One senior police source told Walla that unclear and frequently changing rules had caused significant public confusion and that enforcement of the new directives would be undertaken with sensitivity, with only the most flagrant violations, in which larger than usual crowds have gathered and refuse to heed warnings, will result in enforcement.
On Friday morning, Hagai Levine, head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, criticized the government for ordering restrictions “without any epidemiological basis” and making the decision to close beaches starting next week, noting the virus was likely to spread in closed areas rather than in open ones.
“National security is also mental and economic health,” Levine, an epidemiologist with the Hadassah School of Public Health, told Kan. “A lockdown in homes can achieve the opposite goal and increase infections.”
While stressing Israelis should take precautions against the virus that go beyond the Health Ministry guidelines, he slammed what he termed an “aggressive, opaque and detached approach” to containing the outbreak.
“I thought that lessons were learned from the first wave but it appears that it isn’t the professional echelon that makes the decisions. If the public feels that the decisions are arbitrary, it won’t listen to them,” he warned.
The new restrictions come amid growing discontent over the prime minister’s response to the pandemic.
According to a Channel 13 poll published on Sunday, 61 percent of Israelis disapprove of Netanyahu’s overall handling of the COVID-19 crisis, and 75% are unhappy with how his government has handled the economic fallout of the pandemic. Only 16% said that they were satisfied with the government’s economic response.
Restauranteurs are not the only ones angry with Netanyahu. On Thursday, social workers protested in Jerusalem, blocking the light rail, as part of an ongoing strike which was launched earlier this month after repeated negotiations with the government failed to produce a change in their working conditions.
This week, the country’s nursing union announced that it would go on strike on Monday over manpower shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, which they say have made it impossible to continue their work.
And last weekend, thousands of Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv to protest against the government’s handling of the economic crisis caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Another protest is slated for Saturday evening.