Hazmat-clad election officials begin handling coronavirus votes ahead of count

Central Elections Committee begins to go through 4,076 votes cast by quarantined Israelis; Health Ministry weighs precautions for travelers from US, Germany, France

Elections officials record ballots cast by Israelis under coronavirus quarantine, March 3, 2020. (Courtesy/Central Elections Committee)
Elections officials record ballots cast by Israelis under coronavirus quarantine, March 3, 2020. (Courtesy/Central Elections Committee)

Donning protective suits, masks and gloves, election officials on Tuesday unsealed and counted ballots cast by Israelis who could be carrying the coronavirus, following a dispute over who the task would fall to.

Some 4,076 Israelis under quarantine cast votes Monday in specially constructed isolation voting booths manned by medics in protective gear doubling as election officials.

On Tuesday, the Central Elections Committee released a video showing officials in hazmat suits beginning the process of tallying the votes at a warehouse in Shoham, with a container of hand sanitizer at the ready.

The inside of the ballot boxes were lined with plastic.

The staff were seen recording the names on voting envelopes, an extra layer of protection for anyone casting a ballot outside their normal ballot stations meant to prevent double voting.

The task reportedly fell to senior committee officials after staff refused to touch the ballots.

In the hours after the elections, votes are counted manually by elections officials at either the polling places, or at one of 18 regional CEC headquarters.

However, special so-called double envelope ballots — those of soldiers, medical staff and patients in hospitals, prisoners and disabled people, as well as diplomats abroad who vote earlier than the rest of the population — are brought to the CEC main headquarters in the Knesset for counting.

The coronavirus double envelope votes, though, will be tallied last on Wednesday, at an isolated tent outside the Knesset, the Ynet news site reported.

The committee appealed to the Magen David Adom ambulance service to provide medics to oversee the operation. MDA personnel, wearing protective suits and masks, were the ones who staffed 16 quarantined polling stations where the votes were cast during Monday’s election.

Election officials said they had finished counting 99 percent of votes from the general public on Tuesday. During the night, work will start on the special double envelope votes.

The country’s doctors union, the Israel Medical Association, rejected concerns of infection by those handling the ballots.

“As far as is known, the coronavirus is not transferred via objects such as voting slips and there are no reports of the disease transferred in that way,” the IMA said in a statement.

Workers at Tel HaShomer Hospital wait for Israelis who were under coronavirus quarantine on the cruise ship, Diamond Princess, in Japan, February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“The public should be instructed to reduce transmission of the virus in accordance with scientific knowledge and public health principles, based on science rather than fears,” it said.

On Monday, 16 specially equipped voting booths opened their tent flaps for the 5,600-plus voters who were under home quarantine as a precautionary measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Israel.

Meanwhile, health officials said Tuesday that Israel may further tighten its already strict precautions against the spread of the virus.

Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told Channel 12 Tuesday that his office may issue a warning regarding travelers coming from the US. The ministry was also reportedly considering ordering travelers from France and Germany to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Siman-Tov said that there are currently no Israelis seriously ill with the virus.

At least seven people have died in the US due to the virus, all in the Seattle area.

So far, 12 Israelis have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelling all Israelis recently in these areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.

The Israelis were, however, allowed out of quarantine Monday in order to vote in the special polling stations. But they were ordered to take special precautions such as putting on face masks before they exit their vehicles and trying to make the trip to the voting station without being accompanied by others who are not in quarantine. They were also prohibited from stopping on the way to and from the voting stations.

Additionally, anyone who showed symptoms of the disease was forbidden from using even the special voting stations. Those hospitalized were granted special voting procedures already in place for patients.

Israel does not allow absentee ballots.

The polling stations, located in the cities of Jerusalem, Safed, Afula Illit, Haifa, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Holon, Beersheba, Ashkelon, Eilat, Rosh Ha’ayin, Modiin, and Kfar Saba, were each made up of two small tents with an adjoining window: in one tent sit Magen David Adom paramedics, specially trained for Monday as polling administrators; in the other, visible through the transparent plastic, the ballot box sat on a table behind a blue screen.

As voters arrived, they were greeted by polling staff wearing full protective gear who asked them to temporarily take off their face masks and checked their identity against their Israeli identity card. Then, after each applying anti-bacterial hand gel, the voters were given a specially prepared pack with a new face mask and gloves to wear while voting.

The novel coronavirus emerged in China late last year. It has infected over 92,000 people worldwide in over 60 countries, and killed some 3,100. The vast majority of infections and deaths have been in mainland China.

TV vote tallies released Tuesday night showed Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party winning 36 seats, besting challenger Benny Gantz’s Blue and White faction, which was predicted to win 32.

The right-wing, religious bloc was expected to garner 59 Knesset seats and the center-left bloc 54, both short of a 61-seat majority. Yisrael Beytenu was projected to win seven.

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