Coronavirus crisis'Like rest of the world, we are feeling around in the dark'

Israel eyes minor easing of restrictions within days, as death toll rises to 131

Health, finance ministries fighting over scope of steps; after weeks of delay, Israel finally passes 10,000 tests a day; Bennett calls to reopen much of economy on Sunday

This picture taken on April 15, 2020 shows a view of an empty beach in the Mediterranean city of Jaffa, while Israel is under lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)
This picture taken on April 15, 2020 shows a view of an empty beach in the Mediterranean city of Jaffa, while Israel is under lockdown due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

The government said Wednesday it was to consider a limited reduction of coronavirus restrictions in the coming days, and was reportedly deciding not to extend closures placed on the hard-hit cities of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, which were set to expire Thursday.

The cabinet was to discuss plans Thursday afternoon for a gradual return to semi-normalcy, though officials stressed that it would be a long while before life returns to pre-pandemic routine.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 13 news on Wednesday that an easing of restrictions will “likely happen in the coming days.” He added: “If the Israeli public continues its excellent behavior, we’ll be able to take further steps forward.”

The discussions came as the national death toll rose to 131 Wednesday evening with six more deaths throughout the day. The number of infection cases rose by some 300 cases to stood at 12,501 — 180 people were in serious condition with 133 of them on ventilators, another 174 were in moderate condition while the vast majority displayed mild symptoms.

The Health Ministry also announced that Israel in the past two days had for the first time surpassed 10,000 coronavirus tests a day. Monday saw 10,401 tests carried out, while the total reached a high of 11,501 Tuesday. The goal of 10,000 tests a day was achieved weeks after its initial target date due to equipment shortages.

Police at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem on April 15, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Channel 12 reported on an ongoing tug of war between the Health Ministry and Finance Ministry on planned removal of restrictions, with the latter pushing for more significant steps while the health officials urged caution. However, according to Channel 13 news, all sides agreed that the removal of limitations would be slow, and that the new normal would be different to what people have known.

“We don’t like the term ‘exit strategy’ but rather ‘routine under coronavirus,'” Bar Siman-Tov said. “Because coronavirus is here. It’s not leaving us… We’ll have to take measured steps, see that things are under control and if they stay that way, go a little bit further every time.”

Among the steps the Finance Ministry was pushing for was a reopening of small shops Sunday or Monday, a move the Health Ministry said was premature, according to Channel 12. Health officials were pushing for raising the number of workers allowed to come in to offices, but keeping stores shut.

Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

An immediate reopening of the education system was not seen as viable. But one move under consideration was allowing families to organize in groups of four to allow them to take turns in watching over children and enable parents to work, or simply to take a break as preschools and schools remain closed.

Any steps will be followed by close examination of the effects on infection rates, with the possibility of snapping back restrictions if cases rise. The Health Ministry was expected to recommend that whatever steps are taken, people over 65 will be told to remain at home for at least two more weeks.

“As around the world, we are feeling around in the dark,” a ministry source told Channel 12 of the necessary caution as the country tries to reopen the economy. “The public must understand that every easing [of restrictions] means more dead.”

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement Wednesday night he believed Israel should reopen much of the national economy as well as some of the education system this coming Sunday. He particularly called to relaunch work in the fields of industry, trade and services.

“Continuing the closure at its current level or a slightly reduced one will cause critical harm to Israel and its citizens,” he said.

Meanwhile, Channel 12 reported that recent closures in the city of Bnei Brak and certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem would likely not be extended when they expire Wednesday night. While officials believe they have been effective in particularly hard-hit communities, they were now looking towards more pinpointed steps, the report said.

Police on Wednesday warned of signs that public discipline in keeping to social distancing guidelines was becoming lax, with officials say they’d given out some 3,000 fines over Tuesday and Wednesday, the end of the Passover holiday, a number they said was about 1.5 times higher than fines given out on Passover Eve last week.

Police said that during the holiday they had broken up a circumcision event in an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood attended by over 200 people. Several participants assaulted police officers and hurled eggs at them, officials said.

Israel on Tuesday evening went into nationwide lockdown for the end of the Passover holiday and the Mimouna festival, which saw inter-city travel banned and bakeries shuttered until Thursday morning, to stem the spread of the pandemic.

A man with a face mask walks in an empty street in Jerusalem on April 14, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bar Siman-Tov on Sunday evening warned Israelis against backsliding on their practice of social distancing and adherence to quarantine restrictions, saying the coronavirus could come back with a vengeance.

“I understand it’s hard to stay at home for so long, and the public is proving its ability to keep to the regulations and protect everyone’s families,” he said in a statement.

New outbreaks were reported Wednesday in senior living facilities in Hadera and Ashdod, with dozens of residents and staff from two locations infected. Around one-third of COVID-19 deaths in Israel have occurred at senior living facilities, while some 60 such facilities have reported cases

Bar Siman-Tov acknowledged to Channel 12 on Wednesday that “Our greatest challenge is in nursing homes.”

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing, as a preventive measure against the coronavirus arrive to a patient with suspicion of coronavirus, in Jerusalem on April 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli health officials were expecting a surge in coronavirus deaths in the next 10 days, according to a Friday report. The rise in deaths does not signify an increase in infections, however. Patients who are already hospitalized and on ventilators are likely to succumb to the virus in the coming days, according to predictive models from the Health Ministry, Channel 13 reported.

Almost all of those who have died from COVID-19 in Israel have been elderly and suffered from preexisting conditions, according to hospital officials.

Experts have pointed to the relatively slow rise in the number of patients on ventilators as a source of potential encouragement, and also note the relatively slow rise in the number of new cases.

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