Ministry deputy chief: Lockdown could last months

Health Ministry warns of tougher action as many venture outside in warm weather

Officials say if Israelis don’t follow guidelines country could see ‘significant outbreak’; PM, top health official to discuss clearer instructions amid reports of public confusion

Police seen in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Saturday, March 21, 2020 (Channel 12 screenshot)
Police seen in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Saturday, March 21, 2020 (Channel 12 screenshot)

The Health Ministry on Saturday urged the public to stay indoors despite the fair weekend weather, amid multiple reports of Israelis venturing outside to enjoy the sun, as officials warned they could be forced to up enforcement measures if compliance with the semi-lockdown instituted throughout the country was not satisfactory.

Despite the severe guidelines in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, which instruct people to remain indoors unless for necessary activities or for limited sports activities, media and social media reports indicated many Israelis went out to parks and boardwalks in Tel Aviv and throughout the country, taking advantage of the warm weather.

“The nice weather is not a reason to leave the house,” the ministry said in a statement. “Follow the Health Ministry’s guidelines, otherwise we will find ourselves with a significant outbreak… Stay home. Whoever has gone out, please return home.”

The ministry said it could be forced to “institute stricter measures” if Israelis are uncooperative.

The current guidelines allow Israelis to leave the home for unorganized sport activity as well as a short 10-minute walk, but some people appeared to be going beyond those limited-scope activities Saturday.

Read: The latest Health Ministry guidelines for the public

Some media reports indicated certain levels of confusion among members of the public as to what exactly was and was not allowed. For instance, up until Friday guidelines allowed sports activities in groups of up to five people, but this was then lowered down to two people — a change many seemed unaware of. In addition, no time limit has been given for sports activities, as opposed to the 10-minute limit for strolls with children or pets.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov were set to discuss issuing sharper, clearer guidelines to encourage the public to stay home.

Health Ministry deputy director-general Itamar Grotto told Channel 12 news Saturday, “People will have to be in lockdown for an extended period of time. It’s not a matter of a day or two. We’re talking about at least two weeks as a first stage, and it could mean several months in the second stage.”

Screen capture from video of Deputy Director-General of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto. (Twitter)

He added that infections throughout the country could yet reach 30-60 percent, “with the vast majority unaware that they are ill.”

Police said they had broken up unauthorized gatherings in Tel Aviv and its Givatayim suburb, including some who were picnicking or otherwise engaged in activities not allowed under the new rules.

According to Channel 12 news 17 fines were handed over severe breaches  of health guidelines.

Videos showed police ordering people away from parks and other recreational areas, though it was unclear whether those using the parks for the authorized sports activities were in breach of any rules.

One video showed police at Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square instructing people to leave.

People were also seen in the city’s Yarkon Park, though it appeared far emptier than usual.

One woman told Haaretz police had told her to leave Yarkon Park, even though she was there for a walk, as she is used to walking several miles every day.

The Tel Aviv municipality urged residents to go back home as well: “Show personal and public responsibility and immediately stop all gatherings or needless forays out of the house.” The municipality added that it had disinfected most parks in the city and closed some off with tape.

Ramat Gan Mayor Carmel Shama-Hacohen also urged his city’s public to stay home, adding that unnecessarily venturing outside “endangers us all, in the end.”

Israelis outdoors were not limited to the Tel Aviv area, with reports of beaches and nature spots throughout the country drawing visitors over the weekend.

Magen David Adom personnel at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, Tel Aviv, March 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Officials in the Health Ministry told Channel 12 they were less concerned with joggers and more with scenes of children playing together and people in close quarters.

As of early Saturday evening there were 883 people diagnosed with coronavirus in Israel. The Health Ministry said 15 people were in serious condition, a day after the death of an 88-year-old man marked the country’s first fatality in the global pandemic. The ministry also said 19 people were listed in moderate condition and that the rest had mild symptoms.

The Health Ministry says it has boosted testing for the virus from some 500-700 tests a day to around 2,200 per day and officials have said the number of tests would increase to 3,000 per day by Sunday and 5,000 per day by the following week.

Israel confirmed its first death from the virus over the weekend. Aryeh Even, 88, was a resident of a senior home in Jerusalem and Holocaust survivor. Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center said he had been admitted in very serious condition with multiple preexisting conditions. Despite intensive treatment, including being resuscitated from heart failure, his state deteriorated rapidly and he died, the hospital said.

Aryeh Even, Israel’s first fatality in the coronavirus pandemic (Courtesy)

Even and an 89-year-old Jerusalem woman fighting for her life in Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem were among several residents of the Nofim senior home in Jerusalem who were diagnosed with the virus.

The condition of several other Israelis deteriorated Friday, with a number of people in serious to critical condition.

Israel has taken far-reaching measures to contain the virus and on Friday the cabinet authorized further stringent workplace restrictions, tightening the limit to just 30% of workers in both public and private sectors in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The new workplace restrictions came hours after new emergency regulations legalizing tough personal restrictions on movement went into effect Friday, following cabinet approval overnight. Ministers unanimously approved the measures, which made the limitations on movement announced earlier in the week legally binding and enforceable.

The disease generally only shows mild symptoms in the young and healthy, but can cause serious respiratory issues and death in older adults and those with underlying conditions.

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