The Knesset Coronavirus Committee met Sunday to review measures approved by the government over the weekend that are aimed at reducing the country’s climbing rate of infection, with the panel’s chair warning it was not clear that the restrictions are the right course of action.
After hours of discussion, the panel ultimately urged the cabinet to reverse its decision to shutter restaurants starting Tuesday, and instead to allow them to operate at a third of capacity indoors and while maintaining necessary distancing between customers outdoors. It also called to allow beaches to remain open and to allow gyms to continue to operate under strict distancing measures.
The committee will reconvene Monday to review the cabinet’s response and to vote on the measures.
At the meeting, the Health Ministry presented lawmakers with figures indicating that infections in the home may account for a significant percentage of transmissions, while very few cases can be traced back to beaches, swimming pools, restaurants and shops — which the government has moved to close.
With ministers having agreed in principle to impose stringent restrictions for the whole country on weekends from Friday, July 24, and warning that a full-scale national lockdown was looming, committee chair MK Yifat Shasha-Biton (Likud) said it was not clear that these kinds of steps were necessary. Shasha-Biton’s job is reported to be at risk for what the prime minister appears to view as excessive legislative activism; her committee’s support is crucial for decisions approved by ministers to be implemented.
Amid an ongoing rise in national infection rates, regulations announced in the early hours of Friday morning severely limited public gatherings until further notice, ordered the open-ended closure of restaurants for in-house seating for the foreseeable future (though that move was delayed to Tuesday after massive backlash by restaurateurs), ordered the open-ended closure of gyms and exercise/dance studios, and imposed multiple closures on weekends going forward, including of beaches, parks and other recreational activities.
“There is a lot we can do before we decree a lockdown on citizens,” Shasha-Biton said. “The question is not if we remain open, but rather how and under what conditions.”
She added: “It is not certain the recent restrictions on the economy are the right move. We will take restriction after restriction, examine each point by point, according to the data on it, and then we will decide.”
The committee, at the insistence of Shasha-Biton, was briefed on the latest data on where Israelis are contracting the virus. In order to decide whether to approve the government’s measures, she said, “we have to hear the figures.”
Partial data finds hardly any infections at beaches, pools
Presented to lawmakers by Health Ministry officials led by deputy director general Itamar Grotto, the data on infection locations appeared to be highly limited — pertaining only to epidemiological investigations conducted during the period of July 10-16, with only about 28 percent of the 7,998 cases during that period being successfully traced back to the source of infection. In some 36% of cases the location could not be traced and in 3% investigations were not possible. There was no accounting for the remaining 33%, and it appeared that epidemiological investigations may not have been carried out at all for them.
Still, the data that was available showed that among the cases where the infection point was known, 67% (or 1,474) happened in the home. The next most infectious places were education institutes, which accounted for 9.5% (or 210), followed by events attended by large numbers of people at 5.6% (or 123 cases).
Religious locations, such as synagogues and yeshivas, accounted for 4.8% (106 infections). Various “recreation sites,” including but not only restaurants and cafes, saw 4% (89 cases — only 10 of which were from restaurants). Another 2.2% (48 people) were infected at work.
Just 1.2% (26 people) were found to have been infected in stores, and only another 1.1% (24 people) at gyms and fitness centers. Care homes accounted for 1.3% of tracked cases (18 people), while public transportation added up to 0.6% (14 cases). The IDF accounted for 0.5% of the cases (10), “social meetings” caused 0.3% (7 cases), and only 0.2%, or four of the traceable cases, were found to have happened in pools or at the beach. There was one case in a beauty parlor.
The figures “are so partial that you can learn absolutely nothing from them,” Channel 13’s health expert Hilla Alroy said Sunday evening.
Health officials have said that due to a dearth of data from Israel, they are relying heavily on global data on infections to decide on high-risk locations.
Grotto warned legislators that the number of Israelis needing to be hospitalized will continue to surge even if a full lockdown is imposed right now.
“We have over 550 coronavirus patients hospitalized and the crush is creating a crisis,” Grotto said. “From the moment someone is infected until they degrade to serious condition is about two weeks. We can look forward with concern because even if we shut the whole economy and force everyone to remain at home, we will see the spread continuing.”
According to Health Ministry data early Sunday afternoon, there are 649 patients hospitalized, including 238 in serious condition (mild cases self-isolate at home).
The ministry data showed three major hospitals were at 100 percent capacity or higher in their coronavirus wards, including Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem, which was at 184% capacity. Two more hospitals were at 94% capacity and another nine are at 50% or higher.
Health Ministry adamant on restaurant closures
Grotto urged that restaurants be shut down to contain the spread. Though the government had ordered restaurants shut on Friday until further notice (except for takeout and delivery), it backtracked at the last minute and decided to keep restaurants open until Tuesday due to widespread threats by enraged restaurant owners who had stocked up for the weekend to defy the closure order.
“The whole world put restrictions on restaurant activity, and anyplace where there was a rise in morbidity, the restaurants were closed again,” Grotto said. “The current morbidity level requires that even places abiding by [hygiene] standards be shut.”
However, he indicated that pools could remain open. “Most pools have reopened gradually around the world,” he said.
The committee met as Shasha-Biton was reported to fall foul of Netanyahu by insisting that the panel carefully consider the merits of each new restriction sought by the government before approving it. On Saturday night a senior Likud official told Channel 12 news that Netanyahu was seeking to fire her.
Committee has key oversight role
According to recent legislation, the cabinet can swiftly pass emergency coronavirus regulations without the need for Knesset approval, but the legislature must sign off on the decisions within a week or they are automatically annulled.
However, Shasha-Biton’s apparently dogged commitment to fulfill that mandate has been met with scorn by the prime minister and his allies in Likud.
Apparently referring to her clash with the prime minister, Shasha-Biton said at the meeting: “I am sure that everyone who is dealing with the matter is doing so out of good intentions and a desire to beat the virus. We are on the same side, but we are permitted to argue and disagree.”
On Saturday Shasha-Biton had spoken out against the government’s plan to close beaches on weekends and to shutter restaurants, telling Channel 12 news the committee would demand data justifying the closures in order to sign off on them.
Likud had previously threatened to remove Shasha-Biton from her position earlier last week after she and her fellow committee members voted to reverse a cabinet decision to shutter gyms and pools, citing a lack of supporting data — but opposition from Blue and White led the party to back down.
Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have repeatedly warned in recent days that the latest restrictions were necessary in order to avoid a full lockdown down the road.
The Health Ministry said Sunday 1,414 new coronavirus cases were confirmed in the past day, bringing the national case total to 49,575 since the start of the pandemic, of which 27,729 were active cases. The death toll rose to 406 as another five people died.
Of the patients, 238 were in serious condition, with 62 on ventilators, while 130 were in moderate condition and the rest suffered mild or no symptoms.