Health Minister: Steps like Knesset reversal of gym closings will force lockdown
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Health Minister: Steps like Knesset reversal of gym closings will force lockdown

Yuli Edelstein says while Israel does not have data proving risks at workout facilities, its existence in other countries led his office to recommend their shuttering

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Tuesday lambasted the Knesset coronavirus committee’s “irresponsible” decision a day earlier to reverse the cabinet’s shuttering of gyms and pools, warning such moves will “lead the entire country to a full lockdown.”

Speaking to Army Radio, Edelstein claimed that the parliamentary panel, led by a member of his own party who voted against his office’s recommendations, had succumbed to lobbyists.

Pressed on why the committee should have voted to keep the facilities closed after Health Ministry officials were only able to provide data on 35 cases that were contracted in gyms, Edelstein was dismissive. He asserted that there was plenty of data showing that gyms and pools serve as infection hotspots from other countries, which led the Health Ministry to conclude that the workout facilities are just as risk prone in Israel.

While the health minister defended the Knesset’s right to supervise and even reverse cabinet decisions, he recommended that lawmakers internalize the idea that Israel is “at war” with the virus. Moreover, he claimed committee members’ opposition to his office’s warnings and recommendations for additional restrictions last month, while infection numbers were still low, had contributed to the aggressive second wave of the pandemic sweeping the country.

Separately Tuesday, Health Ministry deputy director Itamar Grotto echoed Edelstein’s views on the reopening of gyms, telling the Ynet news site that his office will work to re-shutter them. “Gyms are one of the hotspots of infection because people perform strenuous aerobic activity, people breathe and sweat excessively,” he said.

A gym-goer and trainer in Jerusalem, on May 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Monday, Channel 13 quoted an unnamed senior official in the Health Ministry as saying Israel was only “a step away” from a full lockdown.

“It is unacceptable for us to take action for political reasons rather than professional ones,” the source said, expressing his frustration over the coronavirus committee’s decision.

The Monday vote to immediately reopen outdoor swimming pools and gyms, exempting them from a cabinet decision last week that shuttered parts of the economy in an effort to curb the spread of the pandemic, inflamed tensions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and sparked efforts to oust its head, MK Yifat Shasha-Biton. The party said later it would only take disciplinary measures against Shasha-Biton, after the Blue and White party said it wouldn’t back her ouster.

The committee made the decision against Netanyahu’s wishes, after the premier waged a pressure campaign for Shasha-Biton to keep gyms closed, including meeting with her minutes before Monday’s committee meeting. The decision had originally been expected Sunday, but was pushed off by a day amid the disagreements.

Shasha-Biton nevertheless voted to reopen pools and gyms, as did committee members from the opposition, after the Health Ministry failed to present infection data that showed their closure was justified.

The vote came minutes after Netanyahu’s office, apparently convinced that Shasha-Biton had been persuaded, announced that the premier and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had decided to keep gyms closed, but had established criteria that would allow for the reopening of public pools.

Knesset Member Yifat Shasha-Biton at a meeting of the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee on July 15, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Just before Shasha-Biton voted to reverse the government’s decision, Likud’s coalition whip Miki Zohar angrily approached her, according to Channel 12, and whispered in her ear: “You are finished in the Likud party. You [will be] ousted as committee chairwoman. Have a nice life.”

Immediately after the vote, Zohar updated the House Committee head of his party’s intention to oust and replace Shasha-Biton as chairwoman of the coronavirus committee. Zohar wrote that a new Likud MK would be proposed at the next House Committee session on Tuesday.

But several hours later, Zohar said he had spoken to Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and that they had agreed that Shasha-Biton would only face disciplinary action. He added that Knesset bills wouldn’t be handed to her committee until further notice.

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