Ministers approve outdoor prayers for up to 19, fines for failure to wear a mask
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Ministers approve outdoor prayers for up to 19, fines for failure to wear a mask

Cabinet okays eased restrictions after ministers reportedly fight for hours over aspects of plan announced by Netanyahu and Health Ministry

Illustrative: Jewish men pray outside a synagogue in the city of Beitar Illit, in the West Bank, March 29, 2020 (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Illustrative: Jewish men pray outside a synagogue in the city of Beitar Illit, in the West Bank, March 29, 2020 (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

In the early hours of Sunday morning the cabinet approved the rolling back of some restrictions on economic activity, after reports of hours of bickering between ministers during long overnight telephone debates.

Outdoor prayers of up to 19 people will now be allowed (just short of two “minyans” or quorums), with two meters between worshipers, wearing masks.

In addition, people will be allowed to go 500 meters beyond their own home for sports or prayer, and 500 meters from their workplace for prayer.

Ministers agreed on a NIS 200 fine for anyone caught more than once without a face mask in public, an easing of the proposed NIS 500 fine for a first time offender.

The general steps introduced included:

1. Raising the proportion of workers allowed at their workplaces from 15 percent to 30%;

2. Allowing high-tech and certain other workplaces to return more of their workforce;

3. Introducing a new “purple badge” standard that workplaces will have to meet. Its criteria include face masks, daily temperature checks for all employees and regular sterilization of surfaces;

4. Reopening some stores — including those selling electrical goods, household goods, opticians, and others — limited to two clients at any one time, and stipulating that a physical buffer must be installed at registers. Malls and markets will remain closed;

5. Prioritizing staffing of government offices that assist the private sector;

6. Restarting special education programs for groups of up to three children, and allowing kids from three families to be looked after by a single day-carer;

7. Adjusting and increasing public transportation as appropriate;

8. Allowing sports in fixed pairs, up to 500 meters from home;

9. Allowing outdoor prayers of up to 19 with two meters between worshipers, wearing masks;

10. Introducing a plan to deal strategically with elderly care homes and facilities, which have been hit particularly hard by the virus;

11. Allowing weddings and circumcisions attended by up to 10 people in an open area;

12. Allowing men to visit ritual baths, provided there are no more than three people at the facility at any one time.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday evening announced the removal of restrictions on industries, commerce and personal freedoms starting Sunday, as part of what he said was a careful and gradual process.

The premier said the new guidelines would include a return to work of some employees in the manufacturing and service industries, albeit under various restrictions, as well as the reopening of certain stores.

However, ministers only began a telephone meeting to discuss and approve the measures at around 2 a.m. Sunday, and there was reported bickering on a number of rollback measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference, April 18, 2020. (video screenshot)

Shortly after Netanyahu’s announcement, the Health Ministry sent out guidelines laid out by him, but quickly pulled publication after ministers angrily complained that they had not yet been given a chance to discuss the measures.

The brochure was sent on the ministry’s Telegram channel at 9:45 p.m. At 10:30 p.m. the message was deleted, and replaced by the statement: “The Health Ministry stresses that instructions to the public will be fully released and detailed after the cabinet discussion.”

Kan news reported that Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin wrote on a WhatsApp group shared by ministers that “the Health Ministry is making a mockery of the cabinet.”

Several outlets, including Channel 12 and the Ynet news site, published angry messages posted in the group chat, which were apparently leaked to journalists.

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich commented: “I’m not even sure why we need a cabinet meeting if everything’s been decided and released.” He went on: “We’re not obligated by what the Health Ministry published. That’s their suggestion but the authority and the responsibility is ours.”

According to reports by journalists, during the meeting Smotrich insisted on allowing prayer groups of up to 20 people, and not just next to peoples’ homes. The rules laid out by Netanyahu would have expanded the number to 10.

Israelis walk their dogs and do sports in park haYarkon in Tel Aviv on March 22, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Other ministers also apparently called for the guidelines to not be rushed out, leading Likud minister Ofir Akunis to remark that it would not be right for the government to not approve measures after they were already announced by Netanyahu, according to Kan reporter Michael Shemesh.

Channel 12 news reported Saturday that some cabinet ministers were opposed to certain restrictions announced by Netanyahu, including limiting the new 500-meter personal zone to sports activities only.

It also reported that police officials had expressed concerns they would have difficulty differentiating between those engaged in authorized sports activities and other unauthorized action.

Netanyahu has frequently announced measures before they were approved by the cabinet, leading to some confusion after the approved measures differed from those he had set out publicly.

Channel 12 news reported Friday that the plan was more far-reaching than Netanyahu and Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov had intended, due to pressure from the Finance Ministry and other ministers.

The report said Netanyahu favored keeping the existing harsh restrictions in place until after Israel celebrates Independence Day on April 29, but ultimately agreed to ease restrictions.

Israeli police officers and Israeli soldiers close Begin road, near the entrance to Ramat Gan in Tel Aviv. April 14, 2020. All intercity travel has been banned until Thursday morning. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Appearing in a press conference with leaders of the health and economic sectors Saturday night, Netanyahu laid out the case for easing restrictions, saying Israel’s mortality rates were among the lowest in OECD countries, while its testing numbers were among the highest.

Statistics on the rate of new cases and the number of people on ventilators have been deemed relatively encouraging in recent days. Israel’s death toll stood at 165 on Saturday evening, with 113 people on ventilators.

“Until today we took measures to restrict movement… to reduce the number of people at work… to track confirmed cases,” he said. “These measures have proven themselves… these positive results enable us to ease the restrictions gradually.”

However, he and other officials warned that the success of the new phase of managing the crisis was wholly dependent on the public continuing to behave responsibly and to take all precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

Netanyahu said the situation would be reassessed in two weeks’ time and if it continued to improve there would be a further easing of restrictions, but if there is another outbreak they would be reimposed.

Speaking after Netanyahu, Health Ministry director Bar Siman-Tov stressed that all previous guidelines for the public remained in force, including the obligation to wear face masks in public and to maintain a distance of at least two meters between individuals at all times.

Citizens would still be required to remain within 100 meters of their homes unless taking part in permitted activity.

He warned that people over the age of 67, as well as those at high risk of illness (including sufferers of coronary disease, high blood pressure and those hospitalized in the last six months), should remain at home for now.

People walk through Jerusalem’s mostly shuttered Mahane Yehuda Market on April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu added that the coming Independence Day and Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism events will take place without crowds.

And he asked Israel’s Muslim citizens to avoid the family feasts and gatherings associated with Ramadan, which starts on Thursday.

Shopping malls, restaurants, toy shops, beauty and hair salons and clothing stores were to stay closed at this time.

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