Business owners seethe over third nationwide lockdown, demand compensation

Local authorities decry partial closure of schools; virus czar says lockdown likely Israel’s last, will probably be extended beyond 2 weeks

An empty storefront in downtown Jerusalem on November 10, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
An empty storefront in downtown Jerusalem on November 10, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Forced into a weekslong shutdown for the third time since the start of the pandemic, business owners on Thursday protested the nationwide lockdown set to come into force on Sunday to stem virus infections.

The government regulations, which permit the partial opening of some school grades, also drew criticism from parents and local authorities, who called for the swift vaccination of teachers.

“It feels like this lockdown is unnecessary,” Shani Nuri Mamalia, a cosmetician from the central town of Kfar Saba, told the Ynet news site. “It’s confusing and frustrating to all industries. This is a war of attrition against us.”

Avi Amsalem, who owns three hair salons in Beit Shemesh, told the site the situation was “dire and difficult.”

“For a strong business that may have easily gotten through the first lockdown and managed to get through the second, the third is an economic blow. I have been paying taxes for two decades and I expect the government to support businesses more, particularly during a third lockdown,” he said. “The moment a lockdown begins, they must transfer money to us.”

Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv, on December 23, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The government early Thursday announced a third national lockdown to take effect Sunday in order to curb a resurgence of COVID-19. The new lockdown will begin Sunday at 5 p.m. and last for at least two weeks. The restrictions will be extended for an additional two weeks if morbidity rates do not decrease significantly. The moves were approved by the cabinet overnight.

The rules will bar Israelis from entering another person’s home, except for immediate family members; restrict movement to 1 kilometer from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce, leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50 percent capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

Restaurants will be allowed to do delivery, but takeout orders will be banned. Gatherings will be restricted to 20 people outdoors and 10 indoors, and individual sports activities, such as jogging, will be allowed.

The terms are similar to the last lockdown, in September.

In contrast to previous lockdowns, however, the education system will continue to function, with some restrictions. Kindergarten, grades 1-4, and grades 11-12 will hold classes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Parents will be able to drop their children off at 7 a.m. and pick them up at 2 p.m. Special education programs will continue as usual.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday said the time limits on school dropoffs and pickup was “a mistake and I’m trying to change it.”

Israeli students arrive at a high school in the southern city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

Local authorities denounced the government decision on schools and called for the swift vaccination of teaching staff, according to Channel 12. Education Minister Yoav Gallant, in an interview with Army Radio on Thursday morning, vowed: “After we finish vaccinating medical staff we will inoculate teachers.”

The chairman of the national parents’ union, Merom Schiff, also decried the school arrangements.

“Once again, hysterical decisions have been made, and they are abandoning, without justification, entire grades of students from 5th to 10th who… just want to learn. The compromise reached tonight is pathetic and is entirely disconnected from the situation on the ground,” said Schiff.

“Rehabilitating our children will take a long time, because the psychological, emotional and pedagogical toll from the past few months is unbearable,” said Schiff. “It’s time for the government to internalize that we cannot compromise on Israel’s students.”

The reopening of schools in May and September was blamed for a wide outbreak of the virus nationwide.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Nachman Ash visits the Jerusalem Municipality, November 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash defended the decision on Thursday and said the closure would likely be extended.

“Two weeks is too short. I estimate we will need to extend the lockdown,” said Ash in an interview with Army Radio.

“I truly believe this will be our last lockdown,” he said, adding that the effects of the vaccination campaign will begin to be felt when the restrictions are eased.

The lockdown will be extended by two weeks, to a month in total, if the number of daily infections remains above 1,000 and the viral basic reproduction number remains above 1. The basic reproduction number is the average number of people each virus carrier infects.

The lockdown announcement came as the number of new infections has surged to over 3,000 cases per day for the last several days, and as fears grow of a new, more transmissible variant of the virus.

The new lockdown will end the so-called “green islands” program, which allowed travelers free rein in the tourist areas of Eilat and the Dead Sea.

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

In a blow to the Health Ministry, the head of its epidemiological department resigned on Wednesday, launching a scathing attack on the military’s handling of epidemiological probes.

Liora Valinsky, director of Public Health Nursing at the ministry, wrote in her resignation letter that the military, which has been tasked by the government to carry out the investigations, was running an ineffective, unprofessional system that is sending thousands of people into quarantine unnecessarily.

Also Wednesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said the new British strain of the coronavirus, which is believed to be far more contagious, has been found in four cases in Israel.

Three of the cases were people who had recently returned from the UK and were staying in state-run hotels. However, the fourth person had not been abroad and had been infected by an apparently unidentified individual inside Israel, signaling the new strain could already be spreading in the country. It was not yet clear whether that person had come into contact with someone who had returned from the UK.

A new rule went into effect Wednesday ordering all Israelis arriving from abroad to quarantine at state-operated and specifically designated hotels. Previously, Israelis requiring quarantine after returning from countries with high infection rates could self-isolate in their own homes.

Israel’s two previous lockdowns, in April and September, succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back.

A medical worker receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed, December 21, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Though Israel in recent days began mass vaccinations for the population, health experts have warned it will take two to three months for the inoculations to start mitigating the pandemic throughout the population.

Edelstein said Wednesday that 65,000 Israelis had been vaccinated during the day, bringing the total number of vaccinations to 140,000.

Adding to Israel’s virus woes, the country was plunged into fresh political chaos Tuesday with the Knesset dissolved and new elections scheduled for March.

The Health Ministry announced on Wednesday that 3,805 coronavirus cases were confirmed the previous day, bringing the number of infections in Israel since the pandemic began to 385,022. The ministry said that 4.3 percent of tests came back positive on Tuesday. The number of active cases in the country stood at 29,997, with 497 patients in serious condition, including 117 on ventilators. Another 195 were in moderate condition, with the rest showing mild or no symptoms. The death toll rose to 3,150, the ministry said.

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