Government okays scrapping weekend closures amid warnings of new restrictions

Netanyahu visits Jerusalem hospital with coronavirus czar, as they say they want to give other means a chance to work before going back to lockdowns

Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv on August 4, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv on August 4, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Ministers on Thursday night officially approved an end to weekend closures of shopping centers, stores and public parks three weeks after they were enacted, after establishing that the limited restrictions had not helped curb rampant coronavirus infections.

The so-called coronavirus cabinet okayed the move on Wednesday, but a formal vote by the full cabinet was only called Thursday.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the cabinet, in a vote coordinated over the phone, nixed the partial lockdowns, which had been widely pilloried.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who has pushed for the cancellation of many restrictions, said the decision to cancel weekend closures was “very brave. It’s a decision for the benefit of Israelis and out of an understanding of their difficulties.”

“It’s not the natural choice, because all countries in our state of morbidity do use closures. We don’t want to do that, and I thank the cabinet for accepting my recommendation and that of many Israeli experts,” he said.

The decision came hours after Gamzu claimed that Israel’s morbidity rate per capita was the highest in the world and warned that the government could reverse its drive to ease up on virus retsrictions.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu attends a Finance Committee meeting in the Knesset, on April 23, 2014. (Flash90)

“If morbidity does not decrease within two weeks we will be forced to consider restrictions, including the possibility of local or national lockdowns,” he said.

Gamzu has set September 1 as a deadline for a “significant” decrease in daily cases.

In recent days new daily cases have hovered around 1,700.

Visiting Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem with Gamzu, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also said closures could return if other means did not manage to bring the infection rate down.

“There is no country with our rate of infection that has not enforced closures, but we are aware of the economic and social situation,” Netanyahu said. “In the next two weeks we will make an effort to bring down illness through other means, and if everyone makes sure to wear masks, I have no doubt we’ll succeed.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) visits Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, on August 6, 2020 (Courtesy Shaare Zedek)

Netanyahu also welcomed the Institute for Biological Research’s purported successful progress in developing a coronavirus vaccine. The secretive research lab will begin human trials in mid-October.

Netanyahu said he had already told the institute to begin working on building a production facility for the vaccine.

Netanyahu’s office has said the government will begin implementing a color-coded coronavirus system, under which cities and towns will have virus policies adapted to their local rates of infection, by September 1.

On Wednesday, media reports said Netanyahu had reached out to associates of Gamzu to press him to adopt the premier’s own preference for lockdowns and other far-reaching restrictions to contain the coronavirus.

According to an unsourced report from Channel 12, Netanyahu was concerned Gamzu’s stance on pandemic policy could lead to apathy among the public and was therefore seeking to pressure him to support stricter limitations.

Since taking up his post, Gamzu has pledged to end “illogical” restrictions and expressed opposition to lockdown measures, warning of their health, economic and social costs.

A technician carries out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, on August 3, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)el

“A full lockdown, from my point of view, is not an option. We need to go to targeted restrictions in hotspots only, and lift restrictions where possible,” Gamzu told the ministers ahead of the meeting, according to Hebrew reports. “A general lockdown is a last resort. The sick people are not in a situation where they’re lacking care. A lockdown will create enormous economic and social hardships,” Gamzu said.

Israel recorded seven new coronavirus deaths Thursday, taking the national death toll to 576, as the number of serious cases reached a new high.

The Health Ministry said 358 people were hospitalized in serious condition, including 100 people being treated with ventilators.

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