Ministers deliberate easing lockdown as lawmakers push for faster opening

Meeting briefly delayed after reports say PM unhappy with infection numbers; no decision to be made on reopening preschools, small businesses until Thursday

People on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 12, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
People on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 12, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ministers convened Tuesday to hammer out a strategy for exiting a nationwide lockdown that has been in place for nearly a month, as members of the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee criticized the Health Ministry’s nine-step plan to gradually ease coronavirus restrictions over several months for being too slow.

As the Knesset committee members and other lawmakers and bureaucrats urged a swifter end to restrictions and reopening of schools, reports indicated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seeking a several-day delay of the coronavirus cabinet meeting slated for Tuesday afternoon due to still-high infection tallies.

At 3 p.m., as the ministers were set to meet, a message was sent out saying that the meeting had been delayed for “consultations.” Following some confusion on when the meeting would be held, the cabinet secretary informed ministers it was rescheduled for 5:15 p.m.

Some reports said Netanyahu had pushed for the meeting to be postponed until Thursday, saying the recent data indicating that infection levels are dropping are not yet sufficiently conclusive.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, responding to news that the meeting could be postponed, said: “The debate over an exit strategy cannot be postponed any further. Small businesses are continuing to collapse, and we must deliberate returning children to [school and preschool].”

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said if the meeting was delayed the lockdown exit would also need to be.

“I’ve only just now heard about it,” he said before delivering a briefing in the Jerusalem municipality. “In any event, today there would not have been final decisions regarding easing [the terms of the lockdown] but rather only general outlines.”

The Health Ministry’s phased plan would see the country gradually return to normal activity, starting with increased freedom of movement and eventually reopening daycares, schools, synagogues, malls and other venues. The scheme would only kick into gear when the national daily tally dips below 2,000 cases and the person-to-person spread is slowed.

According to Health Ministry figures released Tuesday, Israel recorded over 3,000 cases on Monday.

As the coronavirus cabinet met, Netanyahu’s office said ministers would only discuss the latest virus figures and “an orderly exit plan” for easing the lockdown, with deliberations on whether to allow small businesses without in-person customers, preschools and kindergartens to reopen next week pushed off until Thursday.

During consultations ahead of the meeting, the Prime Minister’s Office said Gamzu and several other officials stressed “the difficulty of making decisions right now about easing the lockdown,” as infection rates remain high and it remained unclear if gatherings over Sukkot and Simchat Torah would lead to a jump in new cases.

“Gamzu expressed great concern that despite the lockdown conditions, 3,000 people were infected yesterday,” a PMO statement said.

Ministers are expected to clash over specifics of the plan such as when retailers can go back to business and when preschools and kindergartens should reopen, along with the reopening of Haredi yeshivas and the lifting of the one-kilometer limit on travel.

The Education Ministry, which is pushing for a swift reopening of schools and preschools, released data supporting its position as the coronavirus cabinet met.

According to ministry figures cited by Hebrew media, 94 percent of preschools have not recorded a single COVID-19 case, while 53% of grade schools have not seen any cases. Less than half of high schools — 45% — have not had any infections.

Israeli elementary school students wearing protective face masks at school in Tel Aviv (Courtesy Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

Knesset Coronavirus Committee chairwoman Yifat Shasha-Biton, a Likud lawmaker who has sparred repeatedly with her party’s leadership and shot down government measures, earlier said the Health Ministry plan, which staggers openings based on infection-tally benchmarks, should instead be tied to other statistics.

“We must look at the number of unemployed, how many people went bankrupt, how many domestic violence cases there have been,” she said. “We are losing an entire generation of kids who are not going regularly to school. We know the virus is here to stay for at least another year and we won’t confine people to their homes for a year.”

Hebrew University Prof. Hagai Levine during a Knesset Coronavirus Committee meeting in Jerusalem on October 13, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

An alternative exit plan was presented during the discussion, written by a group of academics headed by Hebrew University Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians.

The plan calls for the resumption of outdoor activities that pose a relatively small risk of infection such as hiking and sports, the opening of education institutions for some ages, and greatly increasing government funding for the health and education systems.

It says decisions to reopen more parts of the economy should not be made according to the number of daily cases, noting that figure can be misleading since it is a product of testing rates. The experts say those decisions should be made with consideration for various figures and that restrictions should be localized rather than nationwide.

Some opposition members said they would stop adhering to some of the current restrictions they deem illogical if they aren’t lifted. Yulia Malinovsky (Yisrael Beytenu) said she wouldn’t refrain from getting haircuts, and Yair Golan (Meretz) said he was leaning toward not respecting the ban on going to the beach.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, chairs an emergency meeting of senior ministers to decide on measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, July 16, 2020. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

The main issue under contention currently is whether kindergartens and preschools should be allowed to open starting Sunday, followed two weeks later by first through fourth grades, as Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto on Monday told the Knesset should be the case.

Grotto’s comments contradicted those of another top Health Ministry official who said a day earlier that schools would not be reopened next week according to a new government plan to gradually lift the lockdown.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, said that the latest figures indicating a slowdown in infections were “encouraging,” but noted that they were from the weekend, when testing levels typically plummet.

“We are aware that workplaces cannot be opened without kindergartens and grades 1-4 [also opening],” she said. “We are doing this in a measured, cautious fashion so that we don’t need to go back” to a lockdown.

Schools were shuttered last month as part of a nationwide lockdown to stem a severe second wave of coronavirus infections. Cabinet ministers are facing growing pressure to reopen classes soon, with many Israelis unable to work because they have nowhere to put their young children.

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