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Finance and health ministers at loggerheads over reopening of stores

Katz and Edelstein spar over lockdown exit strategy as positive virus tests hit lowest rate since beginning of pandemic second wave in June

People walk next to closed shops in downtown Jerusalem on September 30, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
People walk next to closed shops in downtown Jerusalem on September 30, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Senior ministers sparred Wednesday over the possible opening of businesses, but failed to come to any accommodation, amid intense political wrangling as Israel’s government seeks to resume economic activity after a month-long lockdown.

Infections rates in Israel have dropped sharply recently. Health Ministry figures released Wednesday showed that new cases had remained under 1,000 a day for a full week.

Ministers are set to sit down Thursday to continue mapping Israel’s exit strategy, but a meeting between Finance Minister Israel Katz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein to work out a plan for allowing storefronts to resume business ended without any agreement, according to Hebrew media reports.

Katz is pushing for all stores to be allowed to reopen next week, but Edelstein opposes doing so at this stage.

The two were reported to have abruptly left the meeting without reaching an agreement.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Schools and many businesses have been shut since September 18, when Israel began a lockdown aimed at suppressing the rapidly spreading virus, which had turned the country into a global COVID-19 hotspot.

Preschools reopened on October 18, and ministers in the coronavirus cabinet on Monday night approved the reopening of schools for children in first to fourth grade early next week.

They also okayed the lifting of a series of other restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic. They also approved the reopening of hairdressers, beauty salons and other businesses that serve a single customer at a time starting on Sunday.

During Monday’s meeting, a majority of ministers were reported to be in favor of opening all stores but the decision was delayed due to Health Ministry opposition.

“I won’t support opening commerce. We’re playing with fire here,” Edelstein was quoted saying by Channel 12 news.

According to the Health Ministry’s nine-stage lockdown exit plan, business openings would only occur at the third stage, set for November 15 at the earliest.

The steep drop in cases, however, has led many to seek a quicker rebound than the Health Ministry advises. Ministers will reportedly vote Thursday on a plan that condenses the plan into six stages.

Following the initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer, which were multiplied when schools opened on September 1.

On Wednesday evening, the Health Ministry announced that the rate of positive coronavirus tests in the country had hit a new low since the beginning of the second wave in June, with just 1.9 percent of all 20,533 test results that had come back so far Monday returning positive.

The Health Ministry said 398 new coronavirus cases have been confirmed so far Wednesday, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 312,417.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

It also confirmed two more deaths since midnight, raising the national toll to 2,484.

Of the 12,049 active cases, there were 471 people in serious condition, with 199 on ventilators. Another 109 were in moderate condition and the rest have mild or no symptoms.

Earlier Wednesday, the Education Ministry revised its much-criticized program to reopen elementary schools, introducing a plan by which all children in first to fourth grades will attend school for four days a week.

The move, announced by Education Minister Yoav Gallant, came in response to blistering criticism from all corners regarding the government’s earlier plans to have students in first and second grades attend for only half a week, so that there would be enough space to place them in isolated capsules.

Under the new plan, students in grades 1-2 will go to school four days a week, up from three under the initial proposal. Grades 3-4 will also attend classes four days a week, down from five. Children in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.

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