Government officials loosened restrictions on movement during the new nationwide coronavirus lockdown, saying on Thursday night that people will be allowed to travel up to 1 kilometer from their homes, instead of 500 meters as initially announced, after the closure comes into force on Friday afternoon.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and cabinet ministers made the decision following a request from the Knesset’s Constitution, Justice and Law Committee, which needed to approve the regulations.
The Prime Minister’s Office and Health Ministry announced the change in a joint statement shortly before midnight.
There is a long list of exceptions to the movement rule, including for people going to work, buying essentials, and aiding the elderly or those in need.
The lockdown is set to begin on Friday at 2 p.m. and continue for at least three weeks. Israel now has one of the highest daily infection rates per capita in the world.
The government also released an updated list of “red” areas with high infection rates late Thursday night. The list includes 88 localities, including Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Lod, Netanya, Safed, Petah Tikva, Rishon Lezion and parts of Jerusalem.
Red areas are subject to tighter restrictions, including on prayer gatherings during the upcoming holidays.
Netanyahu said on Thursday night that the unpopular new lockdown was “important” and “necessary,” and warned that the government may need to tighten regulations further.
“We made every effort to balance health considerations and economic needs,” he said, but rising infection rates meant “there may be no choice but to tighten the restrictions. I won’t impose a lockdown for no reason, but I won’t hesitate to add restrictions if it’s necessary.
“My obligation and responsibility as prime minister is not only to protect your health, but to protect your lives,” he said, and noted, “There’s a limit to what the healthcare teams can do [before the system is overwhelmed].”
He urged the public: “Wear masks and avoid gatherings.”
“The more this is done, the less there is a need for stringent measures,” Netanyahu said. “Those two steps are more important than any measures we impose.”
He also said a vaccine for the virus was “on the horizon.”
“We’re coming close to a vaccine, but it will take a few months until we see the first vaccines, and a little more time before we get them. But it’s on the horizon, something I couldn’t tell you a few weeks and months ago.”
Israel has seen virus cases surge in recent weeks, giving it one of the highest infection rates per capita in the world. On Tuesday, it hit an all-time high of around 5,500 new cases, but on Wednesday dropped back down to 4,546 new cases, according to Health Ministry data released Thursday.
The figure is far higher than the 1,000 daily cases the Health Ministry is aiming for before it will consider lifting some of the lockdown measures, which will see movement restricted, leisure sites closed, and the education system shuttered, among other limitations.
Over 1,200 people are hospitalized with the virus, and a record 579 patients were listed in serious condition on Thursday, according to Health Ministry figures. Since the start of the pandemic, 172,322 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, or nearly 2 percent of the population.
In response to those worrying numbers, Israel’s cabinet voted on Wednesday night to okay the roster of new restrictions.
The rules have faced opposition from religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews, because they will impact public prayer services during the High Holidays; from business owners, because of the loss in trade; and from the general public, because the closure of the education system will force many parents to miss work as they stay home to care for young children.