Reports say manufacturing, services industries to reopen

Amid encouraging stats, Israel to ease lockdown, gradually start opening economy

Ministers likely late Saturday to let many small shops, workplaces reopen, permit outdoor prayer for up to 10; top health official warns of new coronavirus wave in winter

People wear protective masks in Tel Aviv, on April 18, 2020 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
People wear protective masks in Tel Aviv, on April 18, 2020 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The cabinet will convene on Saturday night to approve a series of measures aimed at rolling back of some coronavirus restrictions in order to restart the economy, with steps likely to be significantly more widespread than health officials wanted.

With the statistics on the number of new cases and the number of people on respirators deemed relatively encouraging, many but not all stores will reportedly be allowed to reopen, and most workers in the manufacturing and service industries will be allowed back to work, albeit under various restrictions. Israel’s death toll stood at 159 on Saturday afternoon, with 118 people on ventilators.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu early Friday green-lighted a general plan to ease restrictions on economic activity and “stay home” orders. A statement from Netanyahu’s office described the plan, which still must be approved by the full cabinet, as “responsible, cautious and gradual” and said it would allow for a limited opening of businesses.

But Channel 12 news reported Friday that under pressure from the Finance Ministry and other ministers, the plan to be approved by ministers late Saturday is more far-reaching than Netanyahu and Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov wanted.

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.

Officials warned that if the Israeli public abused the easing of restrictions, or if infections flared, however, there would be no choice but to snap back the harsh lockdown rules.

Israeli police and soldiers questioning drivers at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem on April 17, 2020.
(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to Channel 12, the measures set to be approved include allowing some stores to reopen, including home furnishings, electrical, books, office supplies, computers, opticians, laundries and maybe hairdressers under certain conditions.

Clothing and toy stores will stay closed.

Shops will be required to register clients via a Health Ministry application, limit the number of people allowed in at a time, and erect plastic barriers between staff and shoppers.

Most workers in the manufacture and service industries will be allowed back to work, though they will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing. They will be limited to fixed shifts, and fixed transportation to work.

They would also be kept to less than six people in open spaces and sharing equipment like computers will be banned.

Restrictions will also be rolled back to allow childcarers and babysitters to look after three kids at a time from more than one family and Special Education programs will be allowed to return to functioning with groups of three children.

Outdoor prayers for up to 10 are to be allowed, provided social distancing is followed. This comes following widespread anger and some protests among the ultra-Orthodox communities.

Ultra-Orthodox men covered with prayer shawls pray outside their homes in the Northern Israeli city of Tzfat, April 13, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Sport activity will be allowed in pairs as far as 500 meters from one’s home. Basketball and soccer will not be allowed at this stage. The report said Netanyahu vetoed a proposal to extend the range, saying he feared mass gatherings in parks and on beaches.

The ministers are also slated to approve a measure allowing police to hand out fines to those who don’t wear masks outside. For the past week, there has been a requirement to wear masks in public but police have not been given authority to fine those who refuse to do so.

These are the likely measures, the TV report stressed, but are still subject to change.

The Health Ministry’s Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 12 news that “encouraging indications” had enabled Israel to take certain “risks” and allow an opening of the economy.

The death toll in Israel from the coronavirus rose to 151 Friday evening, an increase of eight from the previous evening, as the country hit a record number of tests.

Israel is currently 27th in the world in terms of deaths from the virus per capita, Channel 12 said. Top of the list is Belgium, followed by Spain, Italy, France and the UK. The US is 9th.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

As of Friday evening there have been 12,982 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel, 168 people were in serious condition with 122 of them on ventilators.

Another 162 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild symptoms. There have been 3,126 Israelis who recovered from COVID-19.

But, asked whether Israel was now over the worst of the coronavirus, given that the number of those on ventilators is not rising, among other encouraging statistics, Bar Siman-Tov said it was too soon to tell. “We’ll only know in retrospect,” he said.

He also warned that it was feared that “there will be another wave toward winter.” This, along with other usual winter illnesses will place further strain on the health service. And so, he said, it was decided at Thursday’s cabinet meeting to use the next few months to “enlarge the healthcare system’s capacity” to deal simultaneously with COVID-19 and other challenges.

He also said Israel could not yet reopen schools and restrictions on the vulnerable elderly would continue.

Israel will “have to continue to protect the older generation” for a long time to come. “We don’t believe in the herd immunity notion — it doesn’t work,” he says.

“We’ll need to find a way to enable safe family visits. That will take time,” he said.

According to Netanyahu’s office, the Finance Ministry will draw up a “pilot plan” for some sectors of the economy to open in accordance with Health Ministry social distancing guidelines. Criteria will be drawn up for certification that will allow businesses to open.

Earlier Thursday, the ministerial committee formulating Israel’s response to the coronavirus outbreak approved a decision to relax lockdown restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, while extending closure rules in Jerusalem neighborhoods until April 19.

Two weeks ago Bnei Brak was placed under a strict lockdown, with residents only allowed to leave municipal boundaries to work in key industries or to receive medical care. Some two dozen Jerusalem neighborhoods were put under lockdown on Sunday, most of them ultra-Orthodox.

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