Ministers voted late Sunday to impose a five-day closure in the northern Druze town of Majdal Shams, which has seen virus cases jump in recent days.
The so-called coronavirus cabinet decided the measure will go into effect on Monday evening at 6 p.m. and last through Saturday evening. In addition to a closure of almost all businesses, entry and exit from the town will be restricted.
The town of some 11,000 residents on the slopes of Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights has seen 42 new cases in the last week, giving it the highest per capita infection rate in the country, according to Health Ministry figures released Monday.
The citywide lockdown is the first since Israel lifted hot zone restrictions from all areas except for one Jerusalem neighborhood, as part of the so-called traffic light plan in which areas are graded by morbidity rates and assigned a color-coded designation. Under the plan, red zones, with the highest infection rates, are to be locked down and activities there heavily restricted.
“This is in accordance with the morbidity data in the locality, because for five days the locality passed a score of 8 in the traffic light index, and in order to deal with the increasing morbidity data,” the Health Ministry said in a statement Monday.
The town has had 270 confirmed cases since the outbreak began, of which 65 cases are currently active. Nationwide there are 13,911 active cases out of over 310,000 since the outbreak began.
National coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu recommended the closure of Majdal Shams, warning the cabinet of a renewed spike in infections in Arab towns and pointing to illegal mass weddings as a major concern.
Such events are often attended by hundreds of people with no regard for social distancing or other Health Ministry orders to prevent the virus spread, and were seen as a major driver of soaring infection rates among Arab towns last month. Infection rates in Arab areas dropped sharply once city officials and others cracked down on weddings.
Majdal Shams Mayor Dolan Abu-Salah told Channel 12 news Sunday that the city was already in the process of getting the lockdown lifted.
“Majdal Shams has undergone a very, very, serious process regarding gaining control over the morbidity,” he said.
At the Sunday coronavirus cabinet meeting Gamzu said infection rates were down among the ultra-Orthodox and up in Arab communities, but testing rates had dropped among both.
“There are probably dozens of weddings a day in the Arab community. Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm are in danger of becoming ‘red’ cities,” Gamzu said, referring to hotspots, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
Municipal leaders in Arab Israeli towns claim that they have already used up all of their financial resources and that without any funds from the government they will not be able to confront the virus outbreak.
Mayor of Umm al-Fahm Samir Mahamid, whose Haifa district Arab Israeli city has also seen infection rates go up, said, “The matter of weddings really is worrying and I hope that it won’t come back.”
“We are again seeing a small rise in the number of patients,” Mahamid told Channel 12. “Without budgeting and resources the municipality can’t deal with the weddings or help with enforcement. In order to prevent weddings the state needs to mobilize.”
Also considered a red zone and still under increased lockdown restrictions is the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem.
The Sunday coronavirus cabinet meeting also voted to further ease national lockdown restrictions by reopening schools for grades 1-4. An easing of restrictions on businesses is also set to be considered.
Schools have been closed since September 18, when a nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen last week. The reopening of the school system on September 1 has been blamed for a huge spike in virus cases several weeks later.