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Coronavirus cabinet pushes off decision on reopening schools, shops

Netanyahu calls to shorten multi-stage plan for lifting national lockdown, but health officials said to warn of risks in doing so

An empty classroom at a school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem on October 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
An empty classroom at a school in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hakerem on October 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ministers on Wednesday pushed off a decision on any further easing of the partial national lockdown until next week, amid reported disagreements over the government’s multi-stage plan and the possible openings of schools and shops.

After an hours-long meeting, the so-called coronavirus cabinet dispersed without making any decision on reopening schools and stores, the next two stages in a multi-phase Health Ministry plan for ending the lockdown. Ministers agreed to reconvene to reach a final decision by Monday, according to reports.

One of the main points of contention during the meeting was whether to shorten the Health Ministry’s nine-stage plan. While ministers supported condensing the plan, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling for shortening it to five stages, health officials expressed concerns about doing so.

“With these morbidity figures, I don’t see how we can proceed with a five-stage plan. I suggest we go through the first four stages and then shorten the rest,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, was quoted as saying.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu also said he didn’t see how it was possible to shorten the plan, meant to remedy Israel’s chaotic experiences emerging from the last lockdown, which has been partially blamed for allowing the virus to rebound.

Border Police officers patrol on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Reducing the stages is too high a risk of going backward,” he said, according to leaks from the meeting.

Netanyahu responded that he felt a nine-stage plan, slated to take several months, was “too hard to digest.” Ministers from the coalition’s Blue and White party also expressed support for a five-stage plan, Channel 12 news reported.

The Prime Minister’s Office and Health Ministry later put out a statement saying ministers agreed the transition between stages would be determined by infection rates and not dates; there will be two weeks between stages; a situational assessment will be held each time before restrictions are eased; and that the deliberations on reducing the plan from nine to five stages will continue next week.

As ministers convened, Netanyahu released a video touting the lockdown as a success in bringing down infection rates and said the plan for easing it would not be nine stages.

“There will be less stages but they will be gradual,” he said.

He also warned if infections begin rising again, restrictions could be put back in place.

A precipitous drop in infection rates in the last week, after a month-long lockdown, has led to calls for a swifter than planned reopening of schools, businesses and public activity.

As the meeting began, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein cautioned against reopening the economy and school system too quickly and repeating the mistakes after the first national closure earlier this year.

But several ministers used the meeting to push for the swift reopening of nearly all businesses, including hair and nail salons, vacation rentals and malls, according to Channel 12 news.

A child plays in the city center of Jerusalem as Israel steps out of coronavirus lockdown and rolls back restrictions on October 21, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A similar scenario following the first lockdown caused health officials to abandon their staged plan and open nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May — which has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer which led to the second national closure.

Preschools and kindergartens opened on Sunday, and under the Health Ministry’s plan first and second grades would return to school on November 1. However, health officials have demanded that the Education Ministry revise its plan for first and second grades to include segmenting classes into pods, a move the ministry says will take a month and NIS 6 billion ($1.7 billion) to implement.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Gamzu presented ministers with data showing a 400% increase in the number of infections in children aged 9-11 during the 2.5 weeks that schools were open in September. Alroy-Preis told the cabinet that children were driving the infection.

Health officials reportedly presented a plan to the cabinet for the reopening of elementary schools which said that children needed to be separated into capsules — permanent small learning pods — from first grade upwards. Previous plans only required capsules from third grade upwards.

However, Finance Minister Israel Katz asked the cabinet instead of opening schools to allow small businesses to open as soon as Sunday, including hairdressers and beauty salons.

The coronavirus outbreak is continuing to abate, with new daily cases dropping to 1,171 on Tuesday after rising above 9,000 just a few weeks ago.

A United Hatzalah paramedic wears protective clothing in Jerusalem after testing someone with symptoms of COVID-19, October 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 816 new infections had been confirmed so far on Wednesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 307,259.

The death toll stood at 2,291, with 13 fatalities since Tuesday evening.

The number of active cases, a figure that has also dropped dramatically, fell to 19,547, the first time since July 12 that it dipped below 20,000.

The Health Ministry said 596 people were in serious condition, with 232 on ventilators. Another 176 are in moderate condition and the rest have mild or no symptoms.

The ministry said 30,581 tests had been performed as of midnight, with a positive test rate of 2.7 percent. The positive rate reached as high as 15% in September at the peak of the second wave.

A military task force wrote Wednesday morning in its daily report that Israel was continuing to gain control over the outbreak, but added that in absolute numbers, the morbidity rate was still very high.

Health officials have additionally warned that the downward trend could quickly reverse if the public becomes complacent.

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