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Coronavirus cabinet ends meeting without decision on reimposing restrictions

Officials thwart Netanyahu’s bid for nighttime curfew; ministers to reconvene Monday, with the premier expressing frustration at lack of agreement

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)
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)

A meeting of the coronavirus cabinet ended Sunday evening after seven hours, without ministers approving any rollback of lockdown measures or approving any new restrictions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers that he and Defense Minister Benny Gantz would meet privately to discuss what measures should be taken and propose them at a follow-up coronavirus cabinet meeting on Monday, according to Hebrew-language reports.

Among the measures on the agenda of the forum of ministers, which sets policy for dealing with the virus outbreak, was restarting in-class learning for grades 5-6 and 11-12, allowing malls to reopen, closing all businesses from 7 p.m., hiking fines for violations, and imposing a nighttime curfew.

One of the concerns is the basic reproduction rate — a figure representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects — is on the rise and has surpassed 1.0, meaning the number of active cases is rising rather than declining.

“I had hoped to get a means of lowering the basic reproduction rate, which I didn’t get tonight,” Netanyahu reportedly said. “I’m not making a decision in the meantime.”

During the meeting, Netanyahu dropped the idea of imposing a countrywide nighttime curfew after facing opposition from the national coronavirus czar and the Israel Police, among others.

After officials said a curfew was not an effective way to curb the virus spread, Netanyahu said that attention should instead be focused on a proposal to apply the measure only in local virus hotspots, alongside full closures in the worst-hit areas.

“We understand that it is neither practical nor on the agenda,” Netanyahu said, according to leaks from the meeting carried by media outlets.

Police officers patrol outside shops during a national lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Rosh Pina on November 8, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Netanyahu reportedly became impatient with the lack of progress toward making any decisions at the meeting, saying, “We have an extraordinary talent for dragging out these debates.” A meeting last week had decided only to push off all decisions until this week.

“Here I am shortening the debate,” the prime minister said. “There is currently a proposal by the [coronavirus] czar to instate a nighttime curfew in orange-red cities. Let’s talk about it.”

Netanyahu was referring to a government color-coding system that identifies virus infection levels ranging from green, for low infection rates, up a scale topped by orange and red for the areas with the highest morbidity.

But the discussions of that proposal similarly yielded no results.

The meeting discussed further rolling back national lockdown measures, while also finding ways to address worrying signals that the decline in new infections was slowing, or even reversing.

Newly installed national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash and the Israel Police had reportedly both voiced opposition to the idea of a national curfew, saying the proposed measure would be ineffective at tamping down the coronavirus outbreak.

Nachman Ash in an interview with Kol Barama, March 12, 2020. (Screen grab/Facebook)

Ash provided the cabinet with a presentation that cast doubt on the efficacy of nighttime restrictions, while also warning against trying the measure as a counterbalance to easing other aspects of the lockdown.

“There is no real effectiveness to a night curfew, and at this stage it should not be applied as a means to allow further opening,” Ash said, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Ash, who took over from Ronni Gamzu last week, was said to be of the opinion that if nighttime curfews were applied, they must begin no later than 7 p.m., a position reportedly backed by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.

Police also advised against the curfews, telling ministers that the cost in resources of implementing the measure outweighed the benefits. The force also assessed that the public would find ways around the closures by holding events such as weddings in the afternoon, or arranging social gatherings before the curfew kicks in.

Evening curfews are only effective in a limited area and for a limited period of time, police were reported to tell the cabinet.

The Health Ministry was also said to be against curfews.

Instead, Ash proposed curfews on 10 “orange” cities and a full lockdown on six “red” cities, Channel 12 reported. That suggestion is also stalled for now.

A national panel of experts advising the coronavirus cabinet has also come out against the evening curfews and instead suggested raising fines for mass events to NIS 30,000 ($8,906) while providing incentives for local authorities to increase enforcement.

Currently, the fine for hosting a mass event that breaks lockdown rules is NIS 20,000.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits a new coronavirus lab at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, November 9, 2020. (Ohad Zwigenberg/ Pool via AP)

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection numbers from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October, with a nationwide lockdown, its second since the start of the pandemic.

The lockdown paralyzed much of public life and the economy and shuttered the entire education system. The government began removing some restrictions a few weeks ago, opening preschools and kindergartens, then grades 1-4, as well as permitting some street-front businesses to begin operations. The rest of the education system has continued with remote learning.

Sunday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet came amid new signs that infections in the country may be trending upward again, despite lower rates recorded over the weekend.

The Health Ministry said Sunday that just 286 coronavirus cases were identified the previous day, although that was the result of the far lower testing rates on weekends. There were just 12,654 test results returned Saturday, with a positive rate confirming infection of 2.3 percent. That compares with 30,000- 40,000 test results returned on each of the proceeding days of the week.

As of Sunday evening, there were 7,629 confirmed active cases in the country, with the total tally since the start of the pandemic at 323,741, according to the Health Ministry. Of the active cases, 304 were in serious condition, including 133 on ventilators.

The death toll rose overnight by 11 to 2,732.

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