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Fearing fresh lockdown, business owners demand lawmakers cancel prior fines

Restaurateurs tell Knesset they cannot pay the financial penalties they owe, as labor shortages continue and new restrictions loom

Luke Tress is a video journalist and tech reporter for the Times of Israel

Customers at restaurants at the Sarona market in Tel Aviv on April 21, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Customers at restaurants at the Sarona market in Tel Aviv on April 21, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Fearing further lockdowns, business owners went to the Knesset on Monday to demand lawmakers cancel fines levied against them for violating pandemic restrictions.

Several nationwide lockdowns decimated many businesses last year before Israel’s vaccine rollout allowed a resumption of most activities, but the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant has led to fears of new restrictions.

Representatives of business owners said they could not afford the prior fines, especially facing the prospect of new lockdowns that could further damage business.

“We’re speaking for an entire group of businesspeople that are saying they cannot possibly pay the fines,” restaurateur Hila Formosa Rafael told the Ynet news site, shortly before the Knesset’s Economics Committee convened to discuss the fines.

Blue and White lawmaker Michael Biton called an urgent meeting of the committee “because he understands that it’s terrible to demand that businesspeople, who are crying out ‘save us,’ pay these irrational fines,” said Lili Ben-Shalom, head of a group representing restaurant owners.

The group argued that officials had canceled fines issued to protesters and people who violated restrictions for religious reasons, but had not retracted punishments against business owners over minor infractions, such as allowing customers to pick up takeout orders instead of delivering them a short distance.

Ben-Shalom, owner of the Lela restaurant in Tel Aviv, said business owners owed on average NIS 5,000-25,000 ($1,550-$7,760) in fines.

She said it was not realistic for restaurants to check every patron’s Green Pass, which signifies they are vaccinated or recovered from the virus. Stipends for the unemployed created a labor shortage, making it even harder for staff to enforce virus rules, she said.

The group said that, during the previous lockdowns, the rules often shifted without their knowledge, without a clear explanation, or changed at the last minute, making compliance difficult.

Business owners told lawmakers directly during the Knesset hearing they could not afford the fines, and complained that police had been disparaging toward them while enforcing the rules.

The committee opted to cancel double fines that were issued for some infractions, and to spread out payments, but not to cancel the rest of the penalties.

Biton recommended officials begin to issue warnings, convert some of the previous penalties to warnings, and add more “informed enforcement” of the restrictions.

Despite several months of near-normalcy, Israel’s economy is still recovering from the effects of the first year of the pandemic. Unemployment is still high, even though the government ended most pandemic support measures, and salaries are still balancing out as workers return to the labor force.

Health officials and lawmakers have meanwhile issued stern warnings, pleas and guidance as the Delta variant caused a surge in infections.

On Monday, Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said that his office is concerned by the increased rate of infections and will weigh expanding restrictions, including limits on businesses, in the coming days. The government this week reimposed quarantine restrictions on travelers returning from a list of destinations.

According to a Sunday Channel 12 report, senior ministers are weighing implementing an emergency plan to provide relief to the healthcare system and prevent a fourth national lockdown.

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