Despite spike in infections, cabinet okays cultural events up to 250 people

Despite spike in infections, cabinet okays cultural events up to 250 people

Events including cinema and theater can go ahead as long as venues are at no more than 75% capacity; dancing is prohibited; standard coronavirus precautions must be observed

Israelis wear protective face masks  in Tel Aviv on June 16, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv on June 16, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The cabinet on Friday gave the go-ahead to hold cultural events of up to 250 people with certain limitations, even as coronavirus infection numbers continue to rise in Israel. The green light applies to cinemas and theater, and took immediate effect, though some cinema chains — including Cinema City, Yes Planet and Rav Chen — were reported not to be reopening right away.

The decision, taken during a telephone consultation by ministers, finalized the details on how to reopen cultural events agreed by the cabinet on Wednesday.

According to the decision taken Friday, events can go ahead as long as venues are at no more than 75% capacity, dancing is prohibited and standard coronavirus precautions are observed.

Audiences at events will have to be seated and the sale of tickets must be bought ahead of time. The decision goes into effect from Friday.

In certain situations, with prior approval, events of up to 500 people will also be authorized, the cabinet decided.

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with artists and cultural figures who have been protesting the continued restrictions on their industries.

“I very much want to listen to you and I very much want to help you,” Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “I know there’s a crisis, we want to deal with the crisis, and that’s why I also asked the finance minister to join us. We’ll hear from you and we will help, to the best of our ability.”

Women walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on June 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The decision to open up went ahead despite the continued sharp rise in infections.

The Health Ministry reported 207 new confirmed coronavirus cases Friday morning, taking the number over the past 24 hours to 349. It was the first time over 300 cases were diagnosed in a single day since late April.

Another person died of the virus overnight, putting the death toll at 304.

The latest numbers took the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 20,243, of which 4,372 are active cases. Forty people were seriously ill, 28 of them on ventilators, while 44 were in moderate condition. The rest had only mild symptoms.

The ministry said 16,369 tests had been administered Thursday.

Israel has seen a recent rise in coronavirus cases as it rolled back the lockdown measures it had begun in mid-March, which curbed the initial outbreak but also brought the economy to an almost total standstill. The government has repeatedly warned the public to continue to adhere to social distancing and hygiene orders amid concerns that a slacking of attitudes is allowing the spread of the virus to pick up pace anew.

Leaders have indicated they are averse to a new national lockdown but that they will seek local closures on any hotspots that emerge.

On Thursday government ministers voted to place parts of two southern Bedouin towns under partial lockdown. The week-long closures of two neighborhoods in Rahat and one in Arara (Negev) appeared to be the first such orders given since Israel began to gradually pull back restrictions in early May.

The head of the IDF Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Uri Gordon, right, speaks with the commander of the Home Front Command’s Southern Division, Col. Yossi Cohen, in Rahat on June 19, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition to the closures, the Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command also called up 45 reservists to assist the municipalities, “with an emphasis on disseminating information and moving people to quarantine hotels and recovery hotels,” the military said.

Both Rahat and Arara, two of the largest Bedouin cities in the northern Negev, have seen a rise in the number of cases in recent days. Ministers decided not to impose a lockdown on neighborhoods in Jaffa that have also seen climbing infection numbers.

As of 8 a.m Friday morning, residents under lockdown in Arara and Rahat are limited to their homes, only allowed to leave to travel to work within their respective cities.

The head of the IDF Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Uri Gordon, center, meets with local Bedouin leaders in southern Israel on June 19, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

“We will remain and we will work until we defeat this problem. Working with the Israel Police, health care providers and the local governments, we will do the best possible work in order to minimize the outbreak, but the community will have to help as well,” Home Front Command chief Maj. Gen. Uri Gordon told local leaders during a visit to the area Friday.

In a statement, the Health Ministry said increased information of social distancing guidelines, informational campaigns and efforts to quarantine sick individuals had proven insufficient in the neighborhoods.

The IDF saw its own resurgence of coronavirus cases in recent days, resulting in three major generals, four brigadier generals and a number of other senior officers being sent into quarantine.

In response to these cases, IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Eyal Zamir held a meeting with top officers, discussing the current state of affairs as well as steps the military may have to take “in response to various scenarios,” the IDF said.

“The deputy chief of staff stressed the responsibility of commanders on maintaining the fitness of their units and the health of their soldiers, as well as the general need to abide by the directives of the Health Ministry and the IDF,” the military said.

In Jaffa, which has seen a relative drop in recent days after an initial spike in cases, schools will be closed and gatherings limited to 10 people in the Ajami, Tsahala and Shikunei Hisachon neighborhoods.

Tel Aviv-Jaffa has seen some of the highest infection numbers during the second wave of the virus as case numbers have steadily climbed since the start of the month.

On Thursday Netanyahu said there won’t be any further easing of coronavirus restrictions until the recent spike in infections is flattened, and warned that the government will resort to reapplying lockdowns to achieve that goal.

“There is no doubt that we need to stop the disease,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony to install the new director-general at the Health Ministry. “The disease is coming back and we have, for the time being, finished with opening up more of the economy.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

“There is no substitute for changing the public’s habits,” he added. “If that doesn’t happen, we will be forced to take more aggressive measures,” he said.

The comments came a day after ministers approved the resumption of train operations next week.  Trains and cultural events are among the last major aspects of local daily life that have remained closed as the lockdown has lifted.

Trains have been halted for three months and the date for resuming service has been postponed several times. They are now set to begin running again on Monday.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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