Games without fans, weddings without guests: Ban on gatherings cramps daily life

New coronavirus guidelines likely to be felt across Israeli society, from Knesset swearing-in ceremony to pared down family celebrations

The Israeli Premier League match between Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on February 17, 2020. (Flash90)
The Israeli Premier League match between Beitar Jerusalem and Hapoel Tel Aviv at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on February 17, 2020. (Flash90)

Israeli soccer and basketball games will be played without any fans in the stands for the foreseeable future, authorities said Wednesday, as the government significantly tightened its restriction on gatherings in a bid to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading.

Weddings, bar mitzvahs, concerts and other events will also have to be pared back or delayed by the new rules, which ban gatherings of 100 people or more and urge the cancellation of any event where people might congregate.

The rules were announced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and health officials Wednesday night.

“In these difficult days, all of us citizens of the state must be attentive to the Health Ministry’s guidelines in order to maintain the public’s welfare,” Israel Professional Football Leagues chairman Erez Kalfon said in a statement announcing the decision. “We hope that soccer fans will be able to return to the bleachers as soon as possible.”

A statement from the Health Ministry confirmed that all sporting events would have to take place without fans.

Israel had gradually tightened its restrictions on public gatherings, limiting them to 5,000 people last week and 2,000 on Tuesday before Wednesday’s announcement.

There have so far been 82 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, many of them contracted by travelers who recently returned from abroad, though reports in Hebrew media indicated the number was likely to rise to at least 97 as new information became public.

No cases have been linked to sporting events, though people who attended a Maccabi Tel Aviv-Hapoel Tel Aviv soccer match last month were told to quarantine after one attendee was confirmed to have the virus.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the swearing-in of the 22nd Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Israeli Knesset)

In addition to sporting events, the ban on large public gatherings also places a cloud over the 23rd Knesset’s swearing-in ceremony scheduled for Monday.

The 120 lawmakers alone would exceed the limit on gatherings, to say nothing of spouses or support staff who are also traditionally present for the ceremony. However, the Health Ministry stated that exceptions could be made and it will be up to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to determine whether the event will proceed as planned.

The ban on gatherings includes synagogue prayer sessions, weddings and other celebrations, the Health Ministry said.

The directive covers having 100 people “in a single space,” though it was not clear what met that standard.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation said the plaza prayer area was considered open enough that there were no restrictions on congregating there, though the plaza can sometimes fill with hundreds of people, often in close proximity.

A smaller prayer area inside a tunnel next to the plaza would be restricted to 100 people at a time, said the foundation, which administers the site. It said tours of the Western Wall tunnels was continuing.

A statement from the ministry said stores, malls and shopping centers would be responsible for curbing overcrowding, and called on the public to maintain “reasonable distance” from other people.

The new guideline will likely significantly stifle business at bars and clubs, which will have to make do with smaller parties of those willing to still socialize in the tense, coronavirus panic-stricken environment.

Theaters and cinemas throughout the country face closures, limitations and huge losses amid the 100-plus people ban as well. Additional uncertainty remains regarding the continued functioning of restaurants, gyms and synagogues where more than 100 people frequently gather.

Illustrative photo of activists protesting at Habima Square, Tel Aviv, on November 7, 2015. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater said it had canceled all performances until further notice. Habima, the national theater, said it was awaiting instructions from the Culture Ministry before making changes to its program.

The Cinema City chain of movie theaters told Channel 12 that it will move to limit audiences to 100 people and to space out its screenings to avoid large gatherings in cinema lobbies.

Culture Minister Miri Regev told the network that the country’s Independence Day ceremony on April 28 will take place without an audience.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces new restrictions to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus during a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

The new restrictions were announced as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

Israel has imposed a strict quarantine regime, essentially closing off its borders to foreigners and forcing Israelis coming from overseas to isolate for 14 days.

The Health Ministry on Tuesday also introduced limitations for hospital and retirement home visits to reduce the risk to vulnerable populations like the sick and elderly,

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman announces new restrictions to combat the COVID-19 coronavirus during a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

However, it has left schools and other institutions open. Health Ministry Director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said Israel was not currently considering shuttering schools and that public transportation was operating as usual.

Israel was also not ordering workplaces to close, but where it was possible to work from home, employees should do so.

He said higher education institutes could hold classes online, with students studying from home, but this was not yet a formal requirement.

Israelis with a fever or respiratory symptoms should self-quarantine, and, once their temperatures return to normal, wait a further 48 hours before going back out, Bar Siman-Tov added.

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