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Coronavirus czar appears to back full school opening as death toll hits 819

Ronni Gamzu also says he believes ministers will pass his ‘traffic light’ plan and avoid Rosh Hashanah lockdown; Litzman calls opposition to Uman pilgrimage a ‘slap in the face’

Preparations for the new school year at Orot Etzion school in Efrat, on August 17, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Preparations for the new school year at Orot Etzion school in Efrat, on August 17, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Israel’s top coronavirus health official said Saturday that he backed the full reopening of almost all schools and appeared to back off warnings of a possible lockdown over the upcoming Jewish new year, even as infections showed few signs of slowing down.

Ronni Gamzu, charged with leading the country’s response to the pandemic, had said last week that he was “losing sleep” over the planned opening of schools on September 1, and warned that he was mulling recommending a lockdown over Rosh Hashanah, to keep families and others from holding large gatherings for the holiday.

“I am for opening schools and it is a challenge,” he told Channel 12 news. “From 7th grade and up, the risk [of infection] is higher, but in the lower grades, less so.”

He said that while there were disagreements, a panel of government-appointed experts argued that the school year can open as normal.

“We can open all the grades for classes, aside from those in red cities,” he said, referring to cities with high infection rates. “The kids have a responsibility not to hug. There needs to be model behavior.”

Ronni Gamzu attends a Finance Committee meeting in the Knesset, April 23, 2014. (Flash90)

The comments appeared to mark a reversal from Tuesday, when he told journalists that he thought high school students should only be allowed to attend class for one day a week, if that.

His comments came as the Health Ministry announced that the death toll had risen to 819 over Shabbat, a day after it passed the 800 mark. Israel’s death tally has nearly doubled over the past month, though the figure includes 53 deaths at old age homes over July and August that were erroneously left unreported until late last week.

The number of infections since the start of the pandemic stood at 101,933, including over 27,000 active cases. Nearly 400 people are in serious condition, including 119 on ventilators, according to Health Ministry statistics as of Saturday night.

Daily cases in Israel have stabilized at around 1,700 infections, far higher than the 400 daily cases set by Gamzu as a goal to reach by September 10.

Under Gamzu’s proposed “traffic lights” plan, which would only place restrictions on cities with high morbidity rates, if the rate of infection is not slowed by September 10, new restrictions will take effect starting from Rosh Hashanah, on September 18, until October 11, after the Sukkot holiday.

However, Gamzu told Channel 12 news that he believed the morbidity rate would drop in time to avoid restrictions over Rosh Hashanah.

“There’s won’t necessarily be a closure. I think we can bring down infections, we have four weeks until then. I want to move away from lockdowns. I know I presented it as an option, because I worry, but we all need to create the possibility to avoid it.”

Gamzu also pushed back at claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyhau’s cabinet had lost confidence in him after ministers refused last week to vote on his plan.

On Thursday, ministers refused for a third time to approve Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan, reportedly due to opposition from ultra-Orthodox ministers, who want oppose restrictions that could shut synagogues in high infection areas.

Channel 12 reported that the proposed regulations include, in “red” areas with high infection rates, a limit on going more than 500 meters away from one’s home; limiting gatherings to immediate family members; shutting down the education system, except for special education; and closing most of the public transportation system.

“This is not a lack of faith in me. The ministers are used to restricting the whole country, but there’s no sense in that. They need to give much more responsibility to local authorities,” he said.

He predicted that ministers would swiftly approve the plan when they meet on the matter on Monday.

Netanyahu and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat have both pushed for a full nationwide lockdown in the coming weeks, the Walla news website reported on Thursday, citing cabinet ministers and senior officials.

Gamzu also refused to back down from his push to ban Jewish Israeli pilgrims from visiting the Ukrainian city of Uman for Rosh Hashanah, saying allowing the trips would bring Israel closer to a lockdown.

Gamzu has clashed with Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, head of the ultra-Orthodox UTJ party, over the pilgrimages. On Friday, he wrote a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asking him to ban Israelis from visiting the town, where Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav is buried. The pilgrimages generally draw tens of thousands of Israelis and other Jews each Rosh Hashanah.

“I would like to express my concern that holding two weeks of intensive celebrations, in the heart of the city of Uman, where tens of thousands of people will celebrate in crowded conditions, will inevitably have severe short and long-term implications, both on the local community of Uman and beyond, as well as for the State of Israel,” Gamzu wrote in a letter to Zelensky.

Litzman responded to the letter Saturday, calling it a “slap in the face,” of Bratslav Hasidic Jews and telling Gamzu to stay in his lane.

“Gamzu’s letter … goes outside his role by bypassing the diplomatic channel, which is the responsibility of the prime minister, the health minister and the corona cabinet,” Litzman said, according to Channel 12 news.

Illustrative: Hasidic pilgrims praying near the burial site of Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav in Uman, Ukraine, September 14, 2015. (Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images via JTA)

“Masses of Bratslav Hasidim who travel to Uman every year are worried about the trip under the shadow of the coronavirus this year. We need understanding for their pain and to listen to their legitimate request.”

Last month, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said the Ukrainian government had agreed to let at least 5,000 people attend the pilgrimage. The quota may rise as high as 8,000, but the pilgrims will have to wear face masks in crowded places and refrain from gatherings of more than 30 people, he added.

Israeli health officials are “nervous” about what will happen when the pilgrims return, Bleich said.

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