As infections rise, Knesset panel again overrules ministers, reopens restaurants

As infections rise, Knesset panel again overrules ministers, reopens restaurants

Blue and White MKs skip vote; coalition whip says committee chair ‘being led by the nose by the opposition’; Edelstein: ‘Panel will lead us into full lockdown’

A man checks his body temperature as he enters a coffee shop in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A man checks his body temperature as he enters a coffee shop in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A key parliamentary panel again overturned a decision by ministers and ordered restaurants to be reopened Tuesday, as the Health Ministry reported a rise in new coronavirus infections and deaths.

Restaurants had ceased dine-in operations at 5 a.m. on Tuesday morning after a cabinet ruling last week restricted their services to takeout and deliveries. They were allowed to immediately reopen their doors to customers on Tuesday afternoon after the Knesset Coronavirus Committee voted to overrule the decision. The vote came after the panel failed to reach a compromise with the government in late-night talks.

Seven members of the committee voted in favor of rescinding the cabinet order, with three members from the Likud and United Torah Judaism parties opposing it. The representatives from the Blue and White party, whose leader Benny Gantz had cited the pandemic as his reason for joining Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, were not present for the vote.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein immediately criticized the decision, saying infection rates were high and the move could lead to more extreme measures.

“I do not know what is causing people to be optimistic when the numbers are still high and alarming. The discussions in the coronavirus committee will lead us to a full lockdown,” he told Army Radio.

Restaurants will be permitted to serve 20 people indoors and up to 30 outside. Until the matter can be further discussed by the committee, hotels will no longer be able to serve people indoors up to 35% capacity but will instead be held to the same standards as restaurants, Channel 13 news reported.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

Coalition chair Miki Zohar (Likud) said committee head Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton was “trying to do a professional job, but the opposition is leading her by the nose. The opposition is willing to risk public health to undermine the stability of the government.”

“You are doing enormous damage to the Israeli public because you do not really care about public health,” he added, apparently referring to the opposition.

Shasha-Biton responded, saying that “the committee cannot vote on anything that we cannot explain publicly,” Channel 13 reported.

Shasha-Biton also called on restaurant owners to maintain the safety and health of diners and said she had tried to work with the government to find a compromise.

Likud MK Miki Zohar chairs a House Committee meeting on a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold fresh elections on May 28, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“It’s not just health, there are other aspects here. Even yesterday, I tried to reach a compromise until the early hours of the morning. They arbitrarily set a limit of people. With great pain, I’m going to reject the order,” she said.

The initial closure order for restaurants was announced early Friday morning and was to take effect at 5 p.m. that day. But many restaurants vowed to stay open, decrying the short notice they were given after already having spent large sums to stock up for the weekend. The pressure led Netanyahu to backtrack at the last moment and push off the planned closure from Friday to Tuesday morning.

That last-minute about-face had also been met with frustration from many restaurant owners, who said they had let go of staff and destroyed food in preparation for the closure.

But desperate restaurateurs, warning they faced complete economic ruin and railing against inconsistent government decisions, continued to threaten to defy the government and keep their establishments open.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on July 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In a bid to reach a compromise, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein presented a plan that would allow restaurants to serve up to 30 people in outdoor seating, but none indoors. But in talks that went to midnight Monday with Shasha-Biton, they failed to reach an agreement.

Shasha-Biton, from Netanyahu and Edelstein’s Likud party, already proved a thorn in the side of the government when she reversed a government order to close outdoor swimming pools and gyms last Sunday.

Her committee also voted Monday to keep pools and beaches open on weekends, contrary to a cabinet decision last week that would see those locations included in weekend closures aimed at halting a recent surge in infections.

The Coronavirus Committee was on Sunday given data on 1,474 cases of contagion traced by the Health Ministry; only 10 of them originated in restaurants. The data, however, represented only a fraction of the recent cases, with most sources of infection still unknown.

Earlier this month, the Health Ministry released a document ranking daily activities in terms of their danger of exposure to the coronavirus that listed dining at indoor bars and restaurants as a high-risk activity.

Medical workers in the coronavirus ward at Sheba Medical Center team in Ramat Gan on July 20, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

On Tuesday morning the Health Ministry announced that 1,855 cases of the coronavirus had been diagnosed in the previous 24 hours, as the death toll rose by seven from Monday evening, to 422.

There had appeared to be a drop in new infection rates on Monday morning, with only 1,139 cases found in the previous 24 hours.

The ministry update said 52,687 cases had been diagnosed since the start of the pandemic, including 29,883 active cases. Of them, 260 are in serious condition, with 78 of those on ventilators. Another 131 people were in moderate condition, and the rest were showing mild or no symptoms.

The ministry said 24,200 coronavirus tests were carried out on Monday with 7.7% coming back positive. Additionally, the ministry said that 3,259 tests had been carried out since midnight, with a 10.2% positive rate, higher than previous levels.

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