In another U-turn, government drops plans to impose Hanukkah restrictions

Instead, ministers said to agree that when daily caseload hits 2,500 or basic reproduction rate climbs to 1.32, businesses will be shuttered and schools in virus hotspots closed

'Sufganiyot' donuts sold at a bakery in the Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, on November 26, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
'Sufganiyot' donuts sold at a bakery in the Mahane Yehuda Market, Jerusalem, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, on November 26, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In its second apparent policy reversal in under a week, the government has dropped its plan to impose additional pandemic restrictions over the Hanukkah holiday, and will instead tighten health rules when the number of daily cases hits 2,500, according to Hebrew media reports on Thursday.

The decision came after ministers in the so-called coronavirus cabinet protested the plan to ban Israelis from visiting other people’s homes during the evening hours of the eight-day holiday, which begins on Thursday night. It was unclear how police would have enforced such an order at any rate, as they cannot legally enter homes without a warrant.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to scrap the Hanukkah rules following consultations with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, according to Channel 12. Another proposal to impose a nightly nationwide curfew was similarly abandoned earlier this week after facing legal obstacles.

Reports said the senior ministers had agreed that when the daily caseload hits 2,500 or the basic reproduction rate of the virus (measuring how many people on average every infected person infects) hits 1.32, all businesses that accept walk-in customers will be closed; schools in high infection areas will be shuttered; and public transportation will be reduced to 50 percent capacity. The basic reproduction rate is currently at 1.26.

Such restrictions would remain in force for three weeks, but if the transmission rate of the virus remains high Israel may need to enter another full nationwide lockdown, Edelstein was quoted saying.

Jerusalem residents wearing a face mask shop for grocery at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 10, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Daily infection numbers were at 1,849 on Wednesday, the Health Ministry said Thursday, the second time this week that the daily caseload has been over 1,800 and, alongside Monday’s 1,854 cases, the highest rate since October.

Of the 15,997 active cases, 321 people were in serious condition, 94 of them on ventilators. Over 72,000 tests were conducted on Wednesday, with 2.5 percent returning positive.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 2,937.

Thursday is the first night of the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah, which is often marked by extended family get-togethers in the evening for traditional candle-lighting events. The government has consistently attempted to impose restrictions over holidays throughout the pandemic, fearing that gatherings will bolster the spread of the virus.

The cabinet had convened Thursday morning to approve the proposal to ban visits to others’ homes during the evening hours on Hanukkah, with exceptions made for essential visits, such as for providing care.

Health care workers take samples at a mobile testing station, in Lod, on December 1, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

But disagreements among ministers on the Health Ministry-backed proposal were apparent, according to media reports. Finance Minister Israel Katz and Science Minister Izhar Shay were specifically opposed to the limitations on commerce, the Ynet news site said. The cabinet meeting was paused as Netanyahu stepped out for consultations, with ministers refusing to continue discussions until he returned. Netanyahu later agreed to throw out the plan, the reports said.

Health officials have warned that another nationwide lockdown — the third since the start of the pandemic — could be unavoidable as the number of cases continues to rise. Israel imposed its second nationwide lockdown in mid-September over the High Holidays, and it remained fully in place until mid-October, when the government began to gradually lift the rules. It has yet to lift all of the restrictions imposed at that time.

Thursday’s proposal comes after legal challenges sank a planned nightly curfew that the cabinet had approved for December 9 to January 2. Representatives of the attorney general cautioned that they would not be able to defend the government’s decision to impose a curfew against possible legal challenges because senior Health Ministry officials were not on board with the move. The curfew was challenged as ineffective by senior health officials including the coronavirus czar, Nachman Ash, and Health Minister Edelstein.

Netanyahu on Wednesday night announced that Israel would begin its vaccination drive on December 27, with the country aiming to administer 60,000 shots a day. Israel received its first shipment of Pfizer vaccines on Wednesday and is poised to receive hundreds of thousands of additional doses by the weekend.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the arrival of a DHL freight plane transporting the first batch of Pfizer vaccines at Ben Gurion Airport on December 9, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Netanyahu, in a speech at Ben Gurion Airport as the first batch arrived, said that he would be the first person in Israel to receive the coronavirus vaccine as part of a campaign to encourage inoculation.

According to Channel 12, the first shipment, of only a few thousand doses, was something of a pilot program, to practice the transit and storage of the vaccines, which must be kept at -70°C (-94°F) and used within five days of their removal from cold storage.

The US Food and Drug Administration is set to review Pfizer’s trial data Thursday. If it approves the vaccine for use, Israeli officials are expected to give it their okay.

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