Gyms reopen as Knesset move to overrule government restriction comes into effect
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Gyms reopen as Knesset move to overrule government restriction comes into effect

Restriction twice overturned by Knesset panel flexing oversight muscle; weekend restrictions also lifted as planned, as death toll rises to 457

Israeli exercise at the Holmes Place gym and country club  in Modiin on July 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Israeli exercise at the Holmes Place gym and country club in Modiin on July 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Gyms across Israel were allowed to reopen Sunday morning for the second time this month as a controversial Knesset decision to overturn a government order shuttering them came into effect.

Gyms have been mostly shuttered since July 17, when the government voted to close them as part of a package of measures aimed at stemming the spreading of the coronavirus. However, on Thursday the Knesset’s coornavirus committee, tasked with overseeing government decisions regarding the pandemic, voted to overrule the cabinet and allow fitness centers to reopen starting Sunday.

It was the second time in a month that the Knesset panel overruled a government decision regarding gyms. On July 13 the committee voted to overturn a July 6 decision shuttering gyms and pools, drawing an angry response and threats of political revenge against committee head Yifat Shasha-Biton.

The re-opening of the gyms has become a central element in an intense clash between the government and the Knesset, highlighting what critics say is Israel’s slapdash response to the virus, which has included confusing and oft-shifting rules which have done little to curb the spread of the virus.

Gym owners had complained that restrictions had unfairly targeted fitness centers, claiming that they were not a major source of infections of the coronavirus. Under the government’s short-lived rules, only professional athletes had been allowed to use gym.

People protesting against the government’s decision to close the gyms following the spread of the Coronavirus outside the home of Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein in Herzliya, on July 22, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It’s unclear how many gyms will actually reopen amid complaints that the on-again/off-again restrictions, along with other rules governing how many people may be in a fitness center, have made it impossible to sell memberships or run a business.

Shasha-Biton, who hails from the Likud party headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had agreed with the gym owners, citing a lack of clear data from the Health Ministry and other bodies showing gyms to be a danger to public health.

“It really bothers me that the data is vague and cannot be put on the table,” Shasha-Bitton said at a hearing Thursday at which the decision was overruled. “The worst thing in my eyes is that we cannot rely on what is there because it is not giving the full picture.”

Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Housing Ministry ceremony in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The committee has said the Health Ministry has not provided sufficient evidence to justify shuttering places such as gyms, but health officials say the origin of a significant portion of infections is not known and that therefore they are relying partly on global data on infections to decide on high-risk locations.

A non-peer reviewed Norwegian study in June found that gym-goers were no more likely to contract COVID-19 then those who did not go gyms. However, experts have urged caution, noting that sweat could help spread the virus and noting the dangers in any enclosed space.

The Knesset committee also decided Thursday to keep attractions such as zoos and museums open, after earlier having overruled government decisions to close restaurants, pools and beaches.

The victories may be short-lived, though, with a new law that significantly weakens the coronavirus committees ability to overrule the government set to come into effect on August 10.

Israel has seen the number of coronavirus cases rocket to around 2,000 a day in recent weeks, after previously managing to keep the virus in check during March and April.

On Saturday, the Health Ministry announced that the death toll had risen to 457, with 310 people in critical condition and nearly 100 on ventilators. While only 1,021 new cases were recorded between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday, testing was also significantly down — only around 7,000 tests were performed Saturday, according to initial and incomplete data from the Health Ministry.

Sunday morning also saw the lifting of a weekend-only set of restrictions that kept most stores shuttered since late Friday.

Illustrative: People wearing face masks walk and shop at the Mamilla mall near Jerusalem’s Old City on July 6, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Malls were closed for the weekend, as well as stores deemed non-essential, markets, open-air shopping centers, and hair and beauty salons.

Culture events, event halls, bars and nightclubs are already closed until further notice. Gatherings are currently permitted for up to 10 people indoors and 20 people outdoors. Synagogues are allowed to host prayers with no more than 10 worshipers.

On Friday The New York Times ranked Israel sixth in the world in new daily cases per 1 million people, with a little under 200 a day at that ratio. The US was just above it at a little over 200 per 1 million, followed by South Africa, Panama, Bahrain and Oman, which led the pack with some 300 cases a day per 1 million residents.

Experts have blamed a too-speedy reopening and the lack of an effective contact tracing program as main factors in the virus resurgence, which has come as new daily virus cases around the world have also reached record highs over the past two days.

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