Government weighs stricter virus rules as new infections pile up

Netanyahu says country faces ‘systematic rise’ in infections, will mull stepping up enforcement, controversial digital tracking, limiting public gatherings; death toll up to 307

Passengers ride on Jerusalem's light rail on June 21, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Passengers ride on Jerusalem's light rail on June 21, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government could push drastically stricter enforcement of social distancing rules to fight a “systematic rise” in infections, as ministers dealing with the coronavirus convened Monday.

His comments came as the Health Ministry announced that there had been 183 new coronavirus cases over the previous 24 hours, taking the total count to 20,869.  One new fatality took the death toll to 307.

“We are facing a systematic rise in infections,” Netanyahu said at the opening of a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a ministerial panel overseeing the country’s handling of the pandemic.

“We see it not only here, but also unfortunately around the world,” he said.

He said the policy options to be discussed included dramatically stepping up enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing rules — including introducing higher fines — as well as okaying local lockdowns in outbreak areas and limitations on public gatherings.

He also mentioned the controversial option of reinstating Shin Bet digital tracking of COVID-19 patients. A leaked recording from Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet aired by Channel 12 showed Netanyahu pushing for the renewal of the controversial means of preventing infections.

“I know this topic is problematic,” Netanyahu said Monday, “but on the other hand we know it helped us a lot in containing the outbreak, and we will see how we can overcome the problems to slow down the infection rate.”

Passengers wearing face masks at the Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station on June 22, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel has seen the number of new COVID-19 cases continue to climb by up to 300 a day, leading the Health Ministry on Sunday to instruct hospitals around the country to prepare to reopen their coronavirus wards.

On Monday, the ministry said the number of active cases, which earlier this month had dipped below 2,000, stood at 4,848, including 205 in hospitals.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 21, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/Flash90)

Of them, 46 were in serious condition, including 29 on ventilators. Another 51 were in moderate condition and the rest were displaying mild or no symptoms.

The ministry said 8,219 COVID-19 tests were conducted Sunday, 2 percent of which returned positive.

Diagnoses have risen steadily over recent weeks after being brought down to some 20 cases a day in May following two months of strict restrictions that shuttered business and schools and kept many from being able to travel more than a few hundred feet from home. Train services across the country renewed Monday after three months, but saw depressed ridership numbers.

New Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy on Sunday indicated the government was not seeking to reimpose lockdown measures to curb the spread.

“Just during the past week, over 1,700 new cases were discovered, and 30-40 serious cases. There is no doubt there is a change in the infection rate. It worries us,” Levy told reporters.

Levy, who took up the post last week, said younger people make up a higher percentage of the sick, relative to the period between March and May. New infections have been detected in over 50 communities, which he said indicates “broad community spread.” With some 15,000 daily tests, the number of those coming back positive has climbed from 1.3 percent to over 2%, he said.

“I don’t think we need to head toward a lockdown. The government, too, is not talking about a lockdown,” said Levy, urging citizens to keep social distancing and wearing masks. He also acknowledged “public fatigue from the difficult lockdown,” but stressed that all must remain vigilant and even those displaying mild symptoms should go get tested.

A man receives a warning from a police officer for not wearing a face mask on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu warned Sunday that Israel could be thrust into a new coronavirus lockdown, citing “grave predictions,” a day after a leaked report from a military task force predicted thousands of new cases and hundreds of deaths if authorities do not take immediate steps to slow the spread of the virus.

“If we don’t change our behavior on wearing masks and keeping distance, we will bring reimposed lockdowns on ourselves,” Netanyahu said at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting.

“All the predictions I have been shown are grave. We must flatten the curve now,” he said.

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