Fuming at another weekend shutdown, defiant retailers threaten to stay open

Ministers said to agree on rolling back Friday-Sunday restrictions, but move will have to wait until next week even as store owners fret that they are needlessly losing business

Joshua Davidovich is The Times of Israel's Deputy Editor

A woman shops at the Malha Mall in Jerusalem in Jerusalem on July 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
A woman shops at the Malha Mall in Jerusalem in Jerusalem on July 29, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s retailers are pushing for the government to cancel a weekend lockdown and allow most stores to remain open, with some reportedly threatening to ignore virus regulations mandating they be shut.

Ministers are said to be on board with canceling the current restrictions, though a dispute on the timing means a weekend lockdown set to go into effect Friday afternoon will likely remain in place for one more week.

Under current virus regulations, all non-essential stores must close between 5 p.m. Friday and 5 a.m. Sunday as part of a partial measure meant to curb the quickly spreading coronavirus while keeping the economy running for most of the week.

However, newly appointed coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu has indicated a general unwillingness to take steps that may be damaging to the economy without enough data to support such a move.

Gamzu was slated to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening to discuss the possibility of lifting the government’s weekend restrictions on businesses after Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein agreed that partial lockdowns only caused economic damage without providing the health benefits of a full lockdown.

People wearing face masks walk at Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem on July 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The weekend lockdowns will not be lifted for this weekend, however, according to multiples reports, due to disagreements between cabinet ministers on the matter.

The immediate lifting of the restriction was opposed by Science Minister Izhar Shay, who had suggested it, and by ultra-Orthodox ministers, who would like it to be accompanied with loosened rules on synagogues, according to Channel 12 news.

Prof. Roni Gamzu attends a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset while serving as Health Ministry director general, January 7, 2014. ( Flash90)

The weekend rollback is part of a plan being formulated by Gamzu that will include other steps to scale back restrictions and meet the needs of businesses who say they have been hurt by the pandemic. Gamzu has referred to the current restrictions as confusing and harmful to public trust.

The package is set to be voted on only on Monday, Channel 12 news reported.

While most stores have been reopened since May, retailers say that their margins are too tight to allow them to be closed on weekends.

Much of Israel’s commercial activity is scaled back over the weekends due to the country’s laws on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, but many malls as well as places of entertainment remain open, including restaurants.

A letter sent to Netanyahu and other top officials signed by the heads of several of the country’s largest fashion chains on Wednesday urged the government to not delay the weekend rollback.

“It would be good if you made a decision to immediately cancel this unnecessary and illogical closure which has wreaked huge damage and destroyed us economically,” the letter reads, according to the Globes financial daily. “Pushing off the decision until early next week for technical reasons of religion or anything else, including restrictions from the Ninth of Av [the Jewish fast day that ended Thursday evening], will restore the sense of lack of trust and lack of logic in managing the crisis.”

This weekend coincides with the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, when many stores see increased turnout.

“Weekends make up 40% of my monthly revenues,” Avital Suwet, head of the Bogart clothing chain, told Channel 13 news. “That means if this continues, we will have to reshuffle the deck and unfortunately have another round of layoffs.”

Closed stores at the Cinema City mall in Jerusalem, May 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some store owners are threatening to open even without getting the go-ahead, Channel 12 news reported. The channel did not say which retailers were planning to open.

A letter from a group calling itself “the Forum for Stores and Malls,” and claiming to represent retailers, said that the fact that the ultra-Orthodox were holding up the reform made the rule null and void.

“Given the fact that the issue has been tangled up in religious coercion and has no connection to stopping the pandemic, the forum has decided to order all stores that normally work on Shabbat to open their businesses this Shabbat as has been done in the past,” the letter reads, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

Owners of event venues in Israel protest outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem with a black marriage canopy on July 26, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Business owners in several other sectors, including restaurants and event halls, have also threatened at times to open against the rules, as a way of drawing attention to their plight and to increase pressure on policy-makers.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, who is slated to be removed from her post as head of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee after angering Netanyahu by reversing COVID-19 regulations imposed by the cabinet, has urged the prime minister to immediately lift the weekend restrictions, stating that her former panel had recommended such a move a week ago.

Israel is in the midst of a second wave of the virus after initially appearing to tamp down on its spread in March and April. On Thursday, the Health Ministry announced that Israel had recorded its 500th coronavirus-related fatality, and the number of cumulative cases passed the 70,000 mark. It has seen around 1,900 daily cases for the past two weeks, though erratic testing levels may skew those figures.

Healthcare workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, in Modiin Illit, on July 29, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

A Hebrew University report published Thursday said Israel had begun to gain control of the virus, crediting existing restrictions with helping flatten the curve.

While they recommended that the government not add additional restrictions on movement and crowding, the researchers warned that the number of total new daily cases still remains high and that there remains a risk of another wide-scale outbreak as a result.

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