At a press conference Thursday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced renewed restrictions on public gatherings as coronavirus cases continued their swift rise.
The new limitations, approved by the cabinet earlier, included a limit of up to 20 people in most closed spaces, including inside homes, and up to 50 people at synagogues, event halls, bars and clubs. A decision on restaurants was put off for several days amid disagreements between the health and finance ministries.
Synagogues were initially included in the 20-person limitations, but were upgraded after a conversation between Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, according to a statement from the latter’s office.
Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced the new measures at a press conference, in which the premier said “the virus is still here, in a big way.” The challenge is not simple and “the battle will take time,” he said.
“At the current pace, what seems [like] reasonable [numbers] will turn into tens of thousands of infections. We cannot [allow ourselves to] get there,” he said.
Netanyahu said he was concerned with keeping the economy going, but that this needed to be done with respect for the virus, comparing the necessary policy to “playing an accordion” — sometimes being opened and sometimes closed.
“We are always looking for the balance between the virus and the economy,” he said. “It’s easiest to leave things as they are. Everything’s open, everyone’s supposedly satisfied, but if we do that, we’ll very quickly lose control.”
Netanyahu also said that in the next few days he would announce a six-month financial rescue package to help businesses hurt by the virus closures and to keep them from having to worry about a safety net, and promised he’d make sure the money comes quickly and without bureaucratic hurdles.
“It will provide far more certainty for employment and income… to give a space of time in which you know there is a minimal safety net for businesses, independents, work-seekers.”
Netanyahu said that there had been a 50 percent rise in serious COVID-19 cases since the start of the week, pushing back against those who say there are not many serious cases.
“We need to return to restrictive policies in order to flatten the curve,” he said.
In a twist, Netanyahu claimed the new government had actually slowed down the response time to the pandemic.
“What we were able to do during the transitional government via emergency regulations — suddenly after we formed the government there are rules,” he lamented, citing the need to properly legislate. “There are orders from the attorney general: ‘Do this and that.'”
He said he hoped to find ways to speed up the process and “give us the ability to overcome the obstacles I just described,” without elaborating.
At an earlier meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, a ministerial panel overseeing the country’s pandemic response, the Health Ministry also called for raising the fine for failing to wear face masks, according to reports in Hebrew-language media.
Netanyahu himself said during the meeting that Israel would seek to balance the need to halt the spread of the virus and the fear of further damaging the economy.
“The costs of mistakes to both health and the economy can be very bad. We’ll place the minimum restrictions necessary to stop the spread of the virus and preserve the economy,” he said.
He added that anyone hurt by the moves would be compensated.
Normally, decisions made by the coronavirus cabinet are approved by the government via a round of confirmation phone calls to all the ministers, the Ynet news site reported. But due to the urgency of the matter, Netanyahu decided to call a special cabinet meeting for 7 p.m. to quickly approve new restrictions.
The Health Ministry on Thursday night reported 790 new coronavirus infections in 24 hours and two more deaths since Wednesday evening, bringing the national toll from the pandemic to 324. The ministry said Thursday there have been 27,047 cases since the start of the pandemic, of which 9,176 were active; 17,547 people have recovered. That marked an increase of over 6,000 new coronavirus cases since June 1.
The Education Ministry said Thursday evening that there were 1,162 confirmed cases among students and staff members, and that 24,577 were in quarantine.
Israel on Wednesday hit its highest-yet number of newly-confirmed daily infections, with 1,013. Though it has limited gatherings, closed off highly infected areas, and reinstated the controversial Shin Bet security service surveillance of carriers, the government has previously refrained from reimposing a nationwide lockdown to stem the outbreak due to the economic damage such a step would cause.
As the rate of new infections steadily grows and shows no sign of slowing down, police were set to step up enforcement of distancing rules.
Over the weekend, police said they would launch an enforcement campaign focused on event halls, with officials saying cops would be present at events as early as Thursday evening to enforce distancing rules.
Police have issued 19,000 fines over the past week for going against coronavirus rules, according to figures published Thursday. Most of them were for failure to wear face masks in public.
Opposition lawmakers earlier Thursday berated the government’s response to the rising number of coronavirus cases.
Israel managed to bring down the number of daily cases to low double-digits in May, after weeks of a nationwide lockdown. Since reopening the economy, however, virus cases quickly began to climb.