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‘Guinea pigs for the government’: Business owners decry fresh lockdown

Commerce chiefs argue self-employed are paying the price for failure to contain the virus; full closure to take effect midnight Thursday, shutting all schools, non-essential stores

Israeli small business owners protest the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Tel Aviv, on January 5, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli small business owners protest the government's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Tel Aviv, on January 5, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Business owners are fuming once again after the government decided to impose a full, two-week lockdown from Friday that is set to close the country’s commerce sector, saying they are continuing to pay the price for the mismanagement of the pandemic.

Ministers voted Tuesday night in favor of tightening the current nationwide lockdown by shuttering schools and nonessential businesses for two full weeks, with the aim of cutting rising daily infections that have passed 8,000 a day.

The increased measures will come into force at midnight between Thursday and Friday and last for at least 14 days, according to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “one final effort” to keep COVID-19 at bay, as contagion spreads alarmingly even as Israel continues its vaccination campaign. Leading the world in per capita vaccinations, Israel had inoculated some 1.5 million of its 9.3 million populace by late Tuesday, including some 55% of its 60-plus age group.

Closed down stores at the Azrieli shopping mall in Tel Aviv on December 27, 2020, as Israel enters its third nationwide lockdown in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

But Uriel Lynn, president of the Federation of the Israeli Chambers of Commerce, argued that the lockdown would both damage the economy while failing to curb infections in the long run.

“These are immense damages to the commerce sector, the education system, society and all marginalized communities,” he said, according to Channel 12 news, arguing that the way to go should have been localized measures in virus hotspots.

“After the lockdown, everyone will return to the same behavior patterns that created the outbreak,” he said.

Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)

“A third lockdown is an admittance of the government’s failure in the battle against infections,” said Roy Cohen, who heads an organization representing self-employed businesses.

“Those paying the price, again, are the self-employed and small businesses who are abandoned without up-front compensation or a solution for their existing stock or rental payments,” he charged. “They have become guinea pigs for the government.”

Meanwhile, the lockdown was welcomed by a forum of commerce chiefs that was formed several days ago and that had issued an ultimatum to the government to either impose a full lockdown or face a rebellion by business owners who would open against the regulations.

Retail stores, malls, street-level stores, and restaurants have been among those placed under the strictest and most prolonged restrictions during the virus outbreak, forcing many out of business.

The Israel Commerce Forum was established to unite national commerce, shopping mall, markets, and restaurant organizations in confronting government policy during the lockdown. At a Tel Aviv press conference Sunday, leading figures from its member organizations said they were prepared to back a full lockdown to replace the ongoing porous closure for the sake of driving down numbers to enable opening commerce in the near future.

On Tuesday night, the group said the move “should have been made two weeks ago,” and warned of further steps if the commerce sector isn’t fully reopened after the lockdown.

“Whoever plans otherwise will have to recalculate their policy.”

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Finance Minister Israel Katz backed the government’s decision to tighten the lockdown, saying it was based on the grim predictions of the health care system being overwhelmed.

“The government and the public understand that this is the final kilometer, and we must go through it together,” Katz told the Kan public broadcaster on Wednesday morning. “We need to see this through — lower morbidity, let the vaccines take effect and reopen the entire economy.”

The specific new measures are reportedly set to include closing all workplaces, except for essential workers; limiting gatherings to five indoors, 10 outdoors; and maintaining the limit on traveling beyond 1 kilometer from home.

In perhaps the largest difference to the current limitations, all schools are set to be shuttered, except for special education institutions.

Additionally, Israelis who have not already bought a plane ticket to travel abroad during the two-week period will not be allowed to fly, the Prime Minister’s Office said. Kan News reported that the government will also reintroduce the obligation for all arrivals to Israel to enter state-run hotels for quarantine of up to two weeks.

Israel began its third national virus lockdown last week, but the closure has been slammed as ineffective and full of holes, with schools and workplaces remaining largely open and a lack of enforcement. Health officials have for days been urging a full lockdown, while many Israelis have been seen to be largely ignoring the instruction to stay home, amid apparent weariness with the ever-changing regulations and a sense that the vaccination campaign underway means the pandemic is nearing its end.

There was no immediate word on any plans for more stringent enforcement of the lockdown by police.

Traffic jams in Tel Aviv as police put up temporary ‘checkpoint’ during a nationwide lockdown, September 21, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure, and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50 percent capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

Amid the already-ballooning virus spread, the mutated, highly infectious strain of the virus first diagnosed in Britain has been detected in Israel, leading to fears it could fuel even more cases. Another strain, from South Africa, has not yet been detected in Israel but is believed to be even more transmissible.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday morning that there were 59,229 active virus cases, with 8,164 infections confirmed the previous day, nearing the country’s record when over 9,000 infections were recorded on September 30, when the country was under a second national lockdown.

Along with another 455 cases since midnight, the number of infections since the pandemic began rose to 458,132.

The death toll stood at 3,495.

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