The government convened Sunday to approve a multi-phase plan for a national lockdown, despite objections voiced in recent days by several ministers — one of whom has reportedly threatened to resign — along with business owners and much of the public, as coronavirus infection levels have continued to rise and hospital directors have warned medical staff are severely overworked.
Ministers were holding hours of discussion Sunday, with the plan likely needing to be approved before 11 p.m., when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departs for the United States to sign normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Aspects of the lockdown plan were given preliminary approval by the ministers of the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Thursday, but their support was not unanimous.
Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman — the former health minister — has again told Netanyahu he will resign if the lockdown plan is approved, Channel 12 reported Sunday morning.
The Health Ministry is proposing starting the new national lockdown at 6 a.m. Friday, September 18, and to close schools by Wednesday, September 16, according to widespread reports on the multi-phase closure plan from Hebrew media on Saturday.
The first phase of the intended lockdown, lasting at least two weeks, will see most Israelis limited to traveling 500 meters form their homes, except for essential needs such as food and medicine.
All non-essential shops will be closed to the public, though allowed to make deliveries. Restaurants will be allowed to operate with takeout and deliveries only.
Workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30 percent capacity, or 10 employees — the higher of the two. Exceptions will be made for certain essential operations.
Channel 12 reported that the 500-meter restriction was added against the better judgement of coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who believed it was unnecessary, but was demanded by politicians who believed it was psychologically necessary to make it clear to the public that things were not “business as usual.”
Public prayers on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be allowed under certain limitations that have yet to be finalized, reports said, but the ministry is suggesting prayers in groups of 20 in open areas. In areas with high infection rates, indoor prayers will be held in groups of 10, with the number of groups dependent on the size of the space. In other areas, indoor prayers will be held in groups of 25, with the number of groups dependent on the size of the space.
Finance Ministry assessments say the cost to the country’s economy of the holiday closures will amount to NIS 18 billion ($5.2 billion) at the very least, Channel 12 said.
The second phase of the lockdown is slated to begin around October 1, subject to developments, and to last around two weeks. It is being designated as an interim “tightened restraint” period, during which outdoor gatherings for the entire country will be capped at 50 people and indoor gatherings at 25. Transit between cities will not be allowed. Leisure and entertainment activities will remain closed. Business places will still be barred from receiving customers, and workplaces will be allowed to operate at 30%-50% capacity.
In the third and final phase, the government will reimpose the so-called “traffic light” plan, which addresses each city and town based on its morbidity rate.
With the country facing its second national lockdown and the government’s pandemic policies being widely perceived as disorderly and at times random, many businesses have vowed in recent days to defy closure orders, saying they will not survive a new shutdown. Meanwhile, top business leaders warned Netanyahu on Friday that a new lockdown would be disastrous to the local economy.
Reports have indicated hundreds — and perhaps thousands — of business owners could refuse to shut down if closure orders come, being unable to withstand the financial burden of a further lockdown. Business owners have said promises of compensation down the road are irrelevant, and that they will refuse to shut their doors unless they receive government aid in advance.
Though the plan is expected to pass, the Health Ministry’s plan has faced intense pushback, with one unnamed minister telling Israeli television Saturday that the plan was “insane,” and others vowing to oppose it.
Ministers speaking anonymously to the network Saturday said they would not agree to approve the proposal in its current form, decrying the damage a closure would do to the Israeli economy even as a public outcry by business owners grew, amid threats of mass rebellion against the new restrictions.
Economy Minister Amir Peretz and Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir openly said they would oppose the plan, while the chairwoman of the Knesset’s coronavirus committee said she hoped it would be scrapped.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant said Saturday he opposed closing schools before the national lockdown begins, and said they should shut down on Friday along with everything else.
“A functioning education system is necessary to every child and every family, and is a basic condition for the economy to function,” he said.
Channel 13 reported that Finance Ministry officials and others in the government were pushing heavily to significantly tone down the measures. The network said many politicians and health officials believed the planned restrictions would indeed be moderated.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told Channel 12 that “there will be no negotiation” on the plan, saying there was currently no better alternative, and insisting that keeping the nation open would eventually have consequences worse than those of the fresh lockdown.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said Saturday during a Torah lesson to an ultra-Orthodox audience that not adhering to the government’s orders over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur would be akin to murder, and urged people not to use “tricks” to overcome the ban on large gatherings to attend festive meals.
The proposal is highly controversial with the public, with many business leaders threatening to defy it. Hotels are furious that they will be required to cancel reservations for the High Holidays just days in advance, having geared up staff and purchased immense quantities of supplies and food.
There also also complaints that the lockdown unjustifiably closes down the entire country rather than focusing on COVID-19 red zones, and allegations that it is politically impacted, with the government reluctant to be seen singling out ultra-Orthodox areas, which along with Arab areas, have some of Israel’s highest contagion rates.
Israel’s death toll from the virus was 1,103 as of Sunday morning, with 490 COVID-19 patients in serious condition and 198 in moderate condition.
There were 2,651 new cases confirmed on Saturday — rates are typically depressed over the weekend.
Newly confirmed cases of the coronavirus have been rising steadily, to a record high of some 4,000 per day at the end of last week.