The Health Ministry on Saturday sought to calm an anxious public, assuring Israelis that there would be no shortage of food and that supermarkets would remain open throughout the country, amid reports that people were raiding stores to stock up on goods.
“Citizens of Israel, supermarkets will remain open, period,” ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said in an afternoon statement. “There is no point in storming them. The system is preparing [for broader restrictions] but under any possible scenario supermarkets will remain open.
“I ask the public to act responsibly and to adhere to the instructions of the relevant authorities.”
The comments came amid numerous reports of an onslaught of panicked customers at stores open on Shabbat, with pictures of long lines and emptied shelves making the rounds on social media and news sites.
As Shabbat ended, large lines formed outside supermarkets, with Israelis waiting for them to open, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reiterate that there was no prospect of food shortages, and that supermarkets would remain open no matter what further restrictions are introduced to thwart the spread of the virus.
שבת בבוקר יום יפה. טיב טעם, אשקלון: מדפים ריקים ותורים ארוכים. מותר עד 100 איש? אולי 100 איש רק בתור לנקניקים pic.twitter.com/WTdbMjNaU4
— matan tzuri מתן צורי (@MatanTzuri) March 14, 2020
Avshalom Vilan, secretary-general of the Israel Farmers Union, urged calm as well.
“Israel’s agriculture industry is able to supply all fresh products: vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs and dairy,” he tweeted. “There is no shortage of rice, sugar and meat imports. Even if in the coming days people are asked to stay at home, all food stores will be open and our produce will continue to flow as usual.”
A spokeswoman for the prime minister, Shir Cohen, stressed there was no need to stock up.
“Israel’s food factories are continuing and will continue to operate as usual. The supermarket chains have large stores. Food imports to Israel continue. All these lead to extensive stocks, so there is no need or justification for stocking up on food.”
Netanyahu had made similar statements on Friday, saying: “You have no reason to storm supermarkets. There will be enough food in general and for the [upcoming Passover] holiday.”
Some supermarket chains announced they would be opening more branches than usual on Saturday evening to cope with demand.
Shufersal said it would open 150 stores at the end of the Jewish Sabbath while the Victory chain said it would open a further six stores in addition to its usual five that open on Saturday nights. Rami Levy will not open supermarkets until Sunday, Channel 12 reported, and the other chains are still deliberating.
סופר אלונית עין שמר שבת 8 בבוקר ישראל בהיסטריה pic.twitter.com/YGMrXkfgH1
— @sagi_guez (@sagi_guez) March 14, 2020
The rush to hoard food and basic necessities came amid reports the government could drastically tighten measures to fight the spread of coronavirus in the country in the coming days — and possibly as early as Saturday night — though deliberations on the matter were still ongoing.
Netanyahu was indeed expected to announce new, more stringent measures Saturday evening.
These could include transitioning staff at workplaces deemed non-essential to work from home, further limiting public gatherings, curbing public transport and shutting down malls and other places, as well as possibly shuttering kindergartens and private daycares in addition to the schools and universities which have already been ordered closed for at least the next month.
A senior minister told the Ynet news site that, currently, “the inclination is a slowdown of the economy, not a shutdown.” Officials were said to be working to determine how many Israeli workers would be classified as non-essential.
The Health Ministry is pushing for a complete shutdown of such non-essential workplaces, according to the report, and Netanyahu will have to decide on the next course of action.
Directors-general from the relevant ministries were said to have held marathon talks overnight Friday-Saturday at the Finance Ministry’s headquarters in Jerusalem to run through scenarios where there is a complete shutdown with only essential services running. The discussions were centered around working out certain details such as how IDF soldiers were to get to their bases and whether to shutter boarding schools, which were not included in the directive Thursday ordering the shutdown of schools from the first grade through high school, as well as universities.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel climbed to 164 as of early Saturday afternoon, up 21 from Friday, with nearly 40,000 currently in home quarantines, according to the Health Ministry. Of those with the virus, two are still in serious condition, 10 are in moderate condition, and four have recovered.
Israel has seen no deaths from the virus.
The country has taken a number of far-reaching measures to contain and fight the virus, but has so far stopped short of steps such as banning all non-essential domestic travel or ordering the closure of most businesses.
Any public gatherings of over 100 people have been banned as of Wednesday, leading to the cancellation of sports games and numerous other events, as well as the closure of theaters and many hotels. That order, which went into effect Thursday, applies to weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, and covers “both closed and open spaces,” according to the Health Ministry.
Earlier in the week, the government announced an emergency package of more than NIS 10 billion ($2.8 billion) to stabilize the economy and offset some damage caused by the coronavirus crisis.
To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals were barred from entering the country as of March 12, unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.