As cases rise, Eilat and Dead Sea to greet Israeli tourists; strip malls reopen

No further easing expected until infection rate slows; Red Sea resort city, hotels at Ein Bokek designated ‘special tourist islands’

People enjoy the beach in the resort city of Eilat, on November 6, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People enjoy the beach in the resort city of Eilat, on November 6, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said on Tuesday morning that there were more than 800 coronavirus cases identified in Israel the previous day, as strip malls reopened and a number of hotels in designated tourist areas prepared to greet visitors for the first time in weeks.

The coronavirus cabinet on Monday approved the designation of the Red Sea resort city of Eilat and hotels in the Ein Bokek area of the southern Dead Sea as “special tourist islands” in a late-night telephone vote by ministers. Under the remaining lockdown restrictions, Israel still does not permit non-citizens or non-residents to enter the country.

The Health Ministry said that starting 24 hours after the measure was approved, tourist entry to those areas will be allowed for those who underwent a coronavirus test during the preceding 72 hours and got a negative result. Residents of Eilat who wish to enter or reenter the city will have to present a test result from the preceding week or undergo a free, quick test at a facility that will be set up at the entrance to the city.

According to Channel 13 news, it is expected that only a number of hotels will open their doors to guests on Tuesday, with the remainder waiting for the tourist trade to pick up over the weekend.

A coronavirus checkpoint at the entrance to the southern city of Eilat on November 17, 2020 (Flash90)

Touring the southern city as it prepared to open, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said the move was “great news for the residents of Eilat, but also for each and every one of the citizens of Israel.”

“It will finally be possible to go on vacation in Israel,” he said, while warning that “the project will be short-lived” if visitors don’t follow the special guidelines for entering Eilat. “We need to make sure that everyone who enters Eilat does not bring the coronavirus with them.”

Additionally, open-air shopping centers with more than 20 stores were allowed to open across the country starting Tuesday in low-infection localities designated as “green.”

People shop in Bilu Center, in Kiryat Ekron, November 17, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The further easing of restrictions came as there were 8,030 confirmed active cases in the country on Tuesday morning, with the total tally since the start of the pandemic at 325,035, with 861 cases confirmed Monday, according to the Health Ministry.

Of the active cases, 313 were in serious condition, including 135 on ventilators. The death toll rose by one overnight to 2,735. There were 534 patients hospitalized nationwide for treatment for COVID-19.

There were 47,710 tests carried out on Monday, with 1.8 percent of them returning a positive result.

Unnamed Health Ministry officials were cited by Channel 12 on Tuesday as saying that there would be no further easing of restrictions until the case numbers in Israel stop rising.

The officials expressed outrage that restrictions were continuing to be eased even as the basic reproduction rate — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — topped 1.0, when 0.8 had been defined as the threshold beyond which restrictions would stop being eased. On Tuesday morning, Israel’s reproduction rate stood at a worrying 1.08, according to the Health Ministry.

They also lamented that contrary to what has been previously stated, the government was not waiting two weeks between phases of reopening to ensure that certain steps weren’t causing infections to spike. Unnamed sources told the outlet that although the number of people infected with the virus was not currently worryingly high, there were concerns that further easing of restrictions could lead to a loss of control over the pandemic.

Hospital team members move patients to the new coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on November16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

After failing to reach a decision a day earlier, the coronavirus cabinet on Monday also agreed to further reopen schools in relatively low infection areas, while imposing localized curfews and lockdowns in hard-hit towns.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed on the return to school of fifth and sixth graders on November 24 in so-called “green” and “yellow” communities, with low-to-medium infection rates. Meanwhile, grades 11-12 will return on December 1.

Alongside the moves to ease the restrictions in low-infection areas, the criteria for imposing local lockdowns in high-infection “red” zones will be broadened, and nighttime curfews will be imposed in medium-high “orange” zones. Additionally, the time for changing the designation of an area from “orange” to “red” will be cut in half, Netanyahu said.

A pilot program will also see one closed shopping mall reopening in a reduced form, with successful results then possibly leading to the reopening of all malls and markets.

Ministers also approved tougher enforcement of the rules and higher fines, with Netanyahu warning that a rise in infections could cancel all the steps to ease the restrictions.

Ministers also decided to add the town of Iksal and the city of Qalansawe to the list of “red” localities and impose a lockdown there, as infections in the Arab community remained higher than in the rest of the country. An ongoing lockdown in the Druze town of Buq’ata was extended. Unless extended, the lockdowns will remain in effect until Sunday morning.

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