Ministers at a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet on Thursday will be asked to expand the list of highly infected cities and towns and impose sweeping restrictions, including a full lockdown on some areas, to stem the virus outbreak, according to Hebrew-language media reports.
The meeting, which began Thursday afternoon, comes as the Health Ministry said over 3,000 new COVID-19 diagnoses were confirmed on Wednesday, setting a new record.
According to the government’s criteria, the current list of 23 so-called “red” cities and towns will see seven additional locales added, including the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and town of Elad and the northern Arab city of Nazareth. A dozen neighborhoods in Jerusalem will also be flagged as highly infected “red zones,” all but one of them — the Jewish Quarter of the Old City — Arab-majority East Jerusalem neighborhoods.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu will ask the coronavirus cabinet to approve a full lockdown of the eight worst-affected cities and towns and nightly closures in the remaining 22 “red” areas. The reports did not specify which eight cities and towns are considered the highest risk.
As part of the reported proposal, residents in the eight cities and towns would be banned from venturing more than 500 meters from their homes, all non-essential businesses would be closed, schools would be shuttered, and residents would not be permitted to enter or leave.
In the remaining “red” areas, most schools would be closed, but kindergartens and special needs programs would remain open. Businesses would be shut down and residents would be restricted at night from entering or leaving city limits.
The 30 cities and towns set to be designated as “red” under the plan are: Nazareth, Bnei Brak, Tiberias, Abu Snan, Umm al-Fahm, Elad, Aabalin, Buqata, Beit Jann, Jaljulya, Jatt, Daliyat al-Karmel, Zemer, Taibe, Tira, Kasra-Samia, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre, Kafr Bara, Kafr Kanna, Kafr Qassem, Lakiya, Sheikh Danun, Maale Iron, Ein Mahil, Assafiya, Arara, Fureidis, Qalansawe, Rechasim, and Kfar Aza.
The dozen Jerusalem neighborhoods set to be declared highly infected include the four quarters of the Old City, A-Tur, the Anatot industrial zone, Wadi Joz, Shuafat refugee camp, Sheikh Jarrah, Issawiya, and Bab a-Zahara.
The government has previously resisted demands to lock down so-called “red areas” due to the economic toll. But a health official was quoted by Channel 12 as saying this was the last step before Israel is forced to impose a nationwide lockdown to drive down the morbidity rate.
Ministers in the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Thursday were presented with research suggesting Israel’s hospitals could face collapse in two weeks’ time due to the rising number of virus cases. The study by Hebrew University of Jerusalem researchers predicted the country would have 600 serious COVID-19 cases in mid-September, setting up hospitals to face their worst-case scenarios and exhaust their resources.
The study said the government’s health policies over the past three months failed to reduce the number of daily cases.
“Since the start of June, there has been no reduction or significant moderation of the number of new cases every day who are in moderate or serious condition,” it said.
Moreover, it said coronavirus fatality rates were higher than during the so-called first wave of the virus.
The spike in cases came just two days after 2.4 million Israeli children went back to school, and just two weeks before the High Holidays begin.
According to the ministry data, 3,150 cases were recorded on Wednesday, bringing the number of total cases since the start of the pandemic to 122,799. Of the 23,938 active cases, 426 were in serious condition, 124 of them on ventilators. Another 150 were in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. The ministry said 34,324 tests were conducted on Wednesday, with 9.6 percent of the results returning positive.
The Health Ministry announced another seven deaths since Wednesday night, raising the toll to 976.
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud) called for a nationwide lockdown in a Thursday morning interview with Army Radio.
“Logically, there is no avoiding a lockdown. If we had done it two months ago, we would have been a ‘green’ [low infection rate] country by now. The current numbers, which will amount to a million infections per year, will be impossible not only for the healthcare system [to handle], but also for the economy,” he said.
While a nationwide lockdown during the High Holiday period beginning September 18 will again be discussed during Thursday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, according to reports, a decision is only expected to be made in a week or so.
On Wednesday, Gamzu signaled he would recommend declaring some areas “restricted zones” when the so-called coronavirus cabinet meets on Thursday.
“Red and orange cities will require additional restrictions,” Gamzu said in a briefing, referring to areas designated as having high infection rates under his “traffic light” plan.
Gamzu did not elaborate on what other restrictions he would recommend.
He also apologized to residents of “red” cities for the government’s last-minute decision to keep schools there closed, while warning of rising infection rates in ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
Ultra-Orthodox yeshivas — which resumed studies on August 23, ahead of the rest of the school system — have already seen over 500 new cases, according to reports. If the trend is replicated throughout the country, Israel would be positioned to see a wider COVID-19 outbreak just ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
Channel 12 also reported Wednesday that high-schoolers in the southern city of Beersheba recently held large back-to-school parties, with many students not wearing masks or adhering to social distancing rules. It also said some 5,000 people, many of whom did not wear masks, celebrated at a wedding in the northern city of Shefa Amr.
The continued rise in new cases came after Israel pressed ahead with opening schools on Tuesday, despite the spike in daily infections, and amid fears that the start of the new school year could intensify the spread of the deadly disease.
Tuesday also saw some schools in red zones, where schools were instructed to stay closed at the last minute, ignore the closure order.
Israel’s swift reopening of schools in May — after nearly eradicating the disease with strict lockdowns over the preceding weeks — was seen as a serious factor in the marked resurgence of the pandemic at that time.