Daily virus cases rise as Knesset vote delayed on hiking fines for rule-breakers

831 cases diagnosed on Monday; vote postponed after ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism said to tell PM they oppose any penalty increase for illegally open educational institutions

People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, 2 November, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, 2 November, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Ministry data on Wednesday morning showed a sustained increase in the number of  daily virus cases, with 831 new infections diagnosed Tuesday.

Testing levels were also on the rise with 39,526 tests conducted on Tuesday, apparently showing the results of a ministry campaign to encourage widespread testing.

The positivity rate appeared to be steady at just over two percent — 2.1 percent on Tuesday, down slightly from the 2.3% seen on Monday.

The ministry said there were 9,782 active patients, of whom 365 were in serious condition, including 162 on ventilators. The death toll stayed steady at 2,592.

Nuns wearing face masks walk in downtown Jerusalem on November 3, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Walla news site reported on Wednesday that after talks between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the United Torah Judaism party, a vote on increased fines for violators of virus regulations would be delayed until further discussions could be held between them on the matter.

The ultra-Orthodox party was said to oppose any increase in fines for illegally operating an educational institution.

A softened version of an initiative to raise the fines for violations of coronavirus lockdown restrictions had been expected to be put up for its first vote in the Knesset on Wednesday. The proposal requires three Knesset votes to become law.

The Haredi parties have maintained that the fines for schools single out their community since the majority of institutions found to be violating the rules so far have been ultra-Orthodox. They have threatened to break with the coalition and vote against the bill to hike the fines.

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party was not expected to oppose the law after the fine for defying the ban on opening education institutions (other than preschools and grades 1-4) will be upped from NIS 5,000 ($1,467) to NIS 10,000 ($2,935) instead of the originally planned NIS 20,000 ($5,870).

Ministers additionally agreed on Tuesday that the current NIS 5,000 fine for holding a party, conference, ceremony, festival, entertainment or art show in violation of the rules would also be increased to NIS 10,000 instead of the originally proposed NIS 20,000.

A schoolgirl wearing a protective face mask against the coronavirus enters her school as Israel loosens virus lockdown restrictions and schools are reopened for the lower grades, in Hadera, Israel, Nov. 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

With the rise in cases, the Health Ministry will oppose reopening street stores this coming Sunday, citing the renewed increase in coronavirus infection rates, Hebrew-language media reported Tuesday evening. The high-level coronavirus cabinet will convene Wednesday to discuss the issue.

Finance Minister Israel Katz — who on Tuesday night was sent into quarantine after his security guard contracted COVID-19 — is expected to press the government to go ahead with the move, which had been previously approved as part of a multi-phase plan to gradually ease lockdown restrictions that were imposed in September.

But Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, the ministry’s director-general Chezy Levy and coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu reportedly made a decision to oppose any further steps to lift the restrictions until infections go down again.

A key factor that led to the decision is the basic reproduction number, or the rate of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection. That figure reached the level at which health officials have previously said they would recommend scaling back some of the steps taken to ease the lockdown.

Health Ministry data published Tuesday evening indicated the basic reproduction number had dropped slightly and was now below the 0.8 mark.

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection rates from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October with a nationwide lockdown, which it began to gradually ease two weeks ago. On October 18, daycares, kindergartens and preschools were reopened, followed by grades 1-4 on Sunday, but nonessential businesses remain shuttered, nearly seven weeks on.

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