Lockdown lite: Closure sees patchy compliance, has little impact on traffic

Cellphone provider finds just 18% drop in use of navigation app, barely half the fall for previous closures; buses packed as service cut 50%; Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda partly open

Screen capture from video of the Aluf Sade interchange, December 28, 2020. (Netivei Israel)
Screen capture from video of the Aluf Sade interchange, December 28, 2020. (Netivei Israel)

The first day of Israel’s third national lockdown saw traffic on the country’s roads reduced by barely half the amount seen during the previous two closures, while public buses were just as packed as usual, apparently due to reduced service.

There also appeared to be patchy compliance with the lockdown among businesses, some of which violated the rules of the closure.

The Pelephone cellphone service provider said that during the hours of 6-10 a.m. there was just an 18 percent drop in use of the Waze traffic navigation application compared to the same hours last week.

During the initial days of the March lockdown, the country’s first, there was a 50%-60% drop in use of Waze. A second lockdown, begun in September, saw use of the application drop by 30%-40%.

The lockdown that took effect Sunday includes sweeping limitations on movement, workplaces and commercial activity, but doesn’t shutter schools. Public transportation has been reduced to half its regular capacity. Although declared for a two-week period, there is an option to extend the lockdown, and health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month.

Most of the traffic on the road was in the central region, where the majority of the population lives. There was congestion on Route 4, a major north-south artery, and even at around 3:30 p.m., before the evening rush hour had started, traffic cameras showed the highway was busy with traffic.

The closed shops in Dizengoff Center, in Tel Aviv, during a nation lockdown, December 28, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Police enforcement on the road was mostly by way of pop-up roadblocks with officer randomly hauling over drivers to check if they had a right to be on the road, Ynet reported. During the nights of the lockdown, police will set up 380 roadblocks around the country.

Public transportation, and in particular city buses, were reportedly packed, with some drivers skipping stops because there was no longer any room left on their vehicles.

A passenger on the No. 1 bus traveling through Tel Aviv told Ynet that the buses were as busy as usual.

“The crowding on the buses is like a crowded club, just with a face mask on,” Hodaya, identified only by her first name, told the site. “The situation has been the same since the beginning of the coronavirus. I get on the bus every day, it’s the same crowding. You can see people are afraid, being very stringent about face masks.”

She urged that more buses be provided to reduce the crowding caused by the limited service.

Though pedestrian traffic was noticeably reduced, some people were seen taking advantage of the unseasonable sunshine in Tel Aviv’s public squares and along boulevards.

A number of cafes on the city’s central Dizengoff Street were allowing clients to buy food and drink in a self-service format, violating the lockdown restrictions, Channel 12 reported. Under the terms of the closure, cafes and restaurants are permitted to only provide delivery services.

Some nonessential outlets also remained open, according to the report, notably household item retailers Laline and Fox Home at the Bilu shopping center near Rehovot.

In addition, many shops in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market remained open, the report said.

Screen capture from video of Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, December 28, 2020. (Channel 12 news)

The Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which can reject or amend the rules, gave its final approval to the lockdown measures on Monday. Knesset members on the panel voted 8-7 in favor of the regulations after the national-religious Yamina party opposed it, citing the restriction barring takeout from restaurants.

Due to pushback on the takeout ban, coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud said the committee would vote again on the matter in a week if infection rates decline.

On Sunday Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen announced that the municipality, which neighbors Tel Aviv, will not carry out enforcement on eateries that offer takeout food during the lockdown.

“There is no reason for this needless limitation,” particularly in cities where there is a low infection rate, he said.

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. Fines for violators stand at NIS 500 ($155). Schools have remained open.

The lockdown will end on January 9. Health officials have already said that keeping all schools open for all grades will likely push the lockdown on for another week at least.

Channel 13 news reported Sunday that representatives of business owners are set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. They are expected to ask the premier to make sure the restrictions on their activities won’t last longer than two weeks.

The government is under pressure to shorten the lockdown, and one key figure could possibly help make such a decision — the basic reproduction number, which represents the average number of people each virus carrier infects.

That number has been steady over the weekend after continuously rising over the past few weeks, raising hopes that if that trend continues, the lockdown could be shortened.

Despite their pessimistic predictions about the length of the lockdown, health officials have expressed optimism that the latest closure will be the nation’s last as it steps up the mass vaccination drive that kicked off at the beginning of last week. Vaccinations, which have so far seen up to 75,000 inoculated in a day, will continue despite the lockdown.

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