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As cabinet meets, ministers undecided on lifting lockdown for street stores

Finance minister urges this Sunday as start day; Netanyahu reportedly says target is November 15, but will be brought forward by a week if daily cases drop below 500

People walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 28, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
People walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 28, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A cabinet meeting to discuss easing the ongoing national lockdown to permit small businesses to reopen began Thursday evening, with ministers undecided over how to schedule the move.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein reportedly held last-minute talks that delayed the start of the meeting, but the issue was not resolved

Finance Minister Israel Katz, who has been pushing to reopen all businesses, tweeted that he asked Netanyahu to back his position in at least allowing street stores to open starting this coming Sunday, while complaining about the Health Ministry’s opposition to the idea.

The Health Ministry, he wrote, is “carrying out an expensive campaign on the backs of small entrepreneurs, who opened businesses with their own hands and are now on the verge of collapse.”

According to Channel 12, some of the other ministers who arrived for the meeting were unsure themselves of where the matter stood.

At the meeting, Netanyahu told ministers that the plan is to open street stores on November 15, but if the number of new virus cases diagnosed dips below 500 they will be allowed to open a week earlier, on November 8, according to leaks from the meeting picked up by the Walla news site.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel seemed to be inching toward that figure on Thursday evening, with the Health Ministry announcing 688 new cases of the virus had been diagnosed Wednesday.

Since the start of the outbreak 312,787 people in Israel have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with 2,494 deaths. There are 11,914 active patients of whom 440 are in serious condition, with 191 on ventilators, the ministry said. Another 113 have moderate symptoms and the rest have mild or no symptoms.

There were 14 deaths added since the previous update, bringing the national toll to 2,508.

Of 33,439 virus test results returned Wednesday, 2.1 percent were positive, the ministry said.

Israel began a month-long lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but that also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. Earlier this week the cabinet decided to reopen schools for grades 1-4.

On Thursday Netanyahu again rebuffed persistent criticism of his handling of the crisis, and defended the government’s decision to apply the lockdown, saying the measure had saved lives.

In a televised statement delivered before the coronavirus cabinet reconvened to discuss further easing lockdown measures, he declined to comment on his position regarding the reopening of street stores.

But the prime minister vowed that he would reapply local lockdowns in cities that have high infection rates.

“I will not hesitate to suggest to the cabinet to shut down such a city,” he said. “To cordon it off. No matter what segment of the population it is.”

Netanyahu had previously backed off imposing local lockdowns in ultra-Orthodox cities following pushback from the community’s politicians, whose support he relies on in order to maintain his rule.

Screen capture from video of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a press briefing, October 29, 2020. (Youtube)

Responding to a question on a plan to have grades 1-2 divided into pods for studies, even though the students will be allowed to mix freely during aftercare, Netanyahu admitted the arrangement wasn’t ideal, but rather the results of manpower and logistical constraints.

“We are starting in a way that is not good, but better than if there are no studies at all,” he said.

Noting the declining infection rates, which for over a week have remained below 1,000 new cases a day, compared to over 8,000 before the lockdown, Netanyahu said that without the closure there would have been many more deaths.

“We saved many lives,” Netanyahu said and pointed to countries in Europe where, he said, second waves of infections had prompted governments to also order lockdowns.

“A lockdown is not an easy thing,” Netanyahu said. “Lockdown is very difficult. But when you have no choice, you have to act.”

He also attacked the media for citing medical experts who criticize Israel’s policies.

“In contrast to what you hear all the time in the media, many admire what the country has done,” he claimed.

Moving forward, he said, obtaining a vaccine “is the key to getting rid of this disease.”

People wear protective face masks as they sit in the streets in the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv, on October 28, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Netanyahu warned that no matter what, the coronavirus will remain “here” until a vaccine is developed and maybe even after.

In the meantime, he urged the public to keep to health regulations, and in particular to wear masks, which, he said, if 80% of the public were to put on properly, the disease spread would die off.

MK Naftali Bennett, who leads the right-wing opposition Yamina party and has emerged as a potential challenger for the premiership, rejected Netanyahu’s comments, saying, “Anyone who treats the second lockdown as a success story will also celebrate the success of the third lockdown.”

In a brief statement, Bennett criticized the government’s performance on the coronavirus, asserting that it had failed parents and business owners with its stringent regulations. “The government is concerned solely with politics instead of managing the crisis,” he charged.

The Defense Ministry on Sunday announced that the first human trials of its coronavirus vaccine will begin on November 1 and continue through the spring before it can receive approval for full use.

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