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Infections down, 6 new deaths confirmed as Knesset panel mulls restrictions

Health Ministry reports only 1,139 new cases in 24 hours, but head of coronavirus committee says data inconsistent; coalition whip urges compromise on closure of restaurants

A Magen David Adom paramedic wearing protective clothing evacuates a patient with COVID-19, outside the coronavirus unit at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, July 19, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
A Magen David Adom paramedic wearing protective clothing evacuates a patient with COVID-19, outside the coronavirus unit at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, July 19, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Health Ministry reported a sharp drop in new coronavirus infections on Monday, confirming only 1,139 cases in the previous 24 hours, as a key parliamentary panel was weighing whether to approve the latest government decision to close parts of the economy to curb the outbreak.

Recent weeks have seen daily infections climb consistently to nearly 2,000.

The ministry update said 50,714 cases had been diagnosed since the start of the pandemic, including 28,424 active cases.

Of them, 259 are in serious condition, five more than on Sunday evening. The number of patients on ventilators also grew by five, to 75.

Another 136 people were in moderate condition, and the rest were showing mild or no symptoms.

The death toll increased by six overnight Sunday and Monday morning, to 415.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

Meanwhile, the Knesset’s coronavirus committee was meeting Monday to discuss whether to approve cabinet decisions to impose weekend lockdowns, and to order the open-ended closure of restaurants and cafes (except for takeway and delivery), gyms and other public places.

The head of the committee, Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, previously overturned cabinet orders to shut gyms and swimming pools after the Health Ministry failed to produce infection data supporting the closure.

A similar decision was expected Monday, as Shasha-Biton said during a committee meeting Sunday that it was not clear that the new restrictions were warranted.

After hours of discussion, the panel urged the cabinet to reverse its decision to close restaurants starting Tuesday, and instead to allow them to operate at a third of capacity indoors, while maintaining necessary distancing between customers outdoors. It also called for allowing beaches to remain open and for gyms to continue to operate under strict distancing measures.

Shasha-Biton’s job is reported to be at risk for what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to view as excessive activism; her committee’s support is crucial for decisions approved by ministers to be implemented.

Ahead of Monday’s committee meeting, Shasha-Biton told the Ynet news site that the Health Ministry data presented to her committee on Sunday featured many inconsistencies and contradictions. She said much of the data “doesn’t necessarily support a lockdown, but rather other, creative solutions.

“I hope we make the right choice, based on the figures, for the benefit of Israel’s citizens,” she said, refusing to comment on Netanyahu’s reported efforts to oust her.

Likud MK Miki Zohar chairs a House Committee meeting on a bill to dissolve the Knesset and hold fresh elections on May 28, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Later, during the committee discussion, Coalition Whip Miki Zohar called for a compromise, saying the government did not intend to close beaches and swimming pools, for now.

He said the correct course of action was to allow restaurants only to have customers in outdoor areas while observing social distancing rules, adding that 80 percent of the country’s eateries would be able to open under those restrictions.

Restaurateurs on Sunday threatened to defy the closure order planned for Tuesday, after similar threats forced a last-minute backtrack by the government on Friday.

A report Sunday said senior government officials were weighing imposing weeknight lockdowns in addition to the ones planned for weekends, amid concerns that young Israelis will resort to gathering in public parks and squares, as a result of the shuttering of restaurants, bars and cafes.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that nightly lockdowns were being considered for at least the remainder of summer vacation, during which larger numbers of young people are prone to go out. Without such an order, some officials are concerned that Israelis will begin hosting house parties, which are harder for police to enforce against, the report said.

People sit at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv with drinks from home and the surrounding bars, May 18, 2020. Lockdown restrictions were partly removed at this time. (Guy Prives/Getty Images/ via JTA)

While the government shuttered bars and clubs earlier this month, some nightlife institutions — particularly in Tel Aviv — have remained open by posing as cafes, though these, along with restaurants, are currently also set to be ordered shut on Tuesday morning, except for delivery and takeaway services.

But officials involved in government discussions have expressed concern that the shutting down of what is left of Israeli nightlife will not be enough to prevent crowding, Kan reported, making a lockdown necessary.

According to recent legislation, the cabinet can swiftly pass emergency coronavirus regulations without the need for Knesset approval, but the legislature must sign off on the decisions within a week or they would be automatically annulled.

Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have repeatedly warned in recent days that the latest restrictions were necessary in order to avoid a full lockdown in the future.

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