Israel on Sunday evening entered its third national lockdown since the start of the pandemic to beat back a resurgence of COVID-19.
The lockdown began at 5 p.m. Sunday evening. Although declared to be two weeks with an option to extend, health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month. Daily virus cases in Israel have been climbing upward in recent weeks, surpassing 3,000 on most days over the past week.
The lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. Fines for violators stand at NIS 500 ($155).
Under the terms for the lockdown proposed by the government, preschools, grades 1-4 and grades 11-12 were to have a full day of classes as usual, but grades 5-10 were to stay at home and use distance learning instead. However, the Knesset Education Committee convened on Sunday and voted to overturn the regulations, thereby keeping all students in the classroom.
A senior Health Ministry official told Channel 13 news that the regulations would be resubmitted within 24 hours.
A senior health official said on Sunday that the length of the lockdown could depend on how much of the education system remained open.
“I assume that the lockdown will take between three and four weeks, but if the full education system returns to activity, it will take longer,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, the acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, told Army Radio.
During the lockdown, security forces will set up hundreds of checkpoints on highways around the country. Hebrew media reports indicated that the police presence on the roads would be sporadic during the day and bolstered during the nighttime hours.
The rules will be enforced by some 6,000 cops nationwide.
“Lockdowns save lives,” said coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Sunday, shortly before the lockdown began.
“We are in a race between the rising morbidity and the vaccines,” added Ash. “The vaccine campaign is going exceptionally well. We have managed to vaccinate nearly 300,000 people, and at the same time, the vaccines are streaming into Israel according to plan and we will receive more during the coming weeks.”
Israel’s two previous lockdowns, in April and September, succeeded in bringing down infection numbers, but morbidity ballooned again as the closures were rolled back and travelers from a number of countries were allowed to return without testing or quarantine. Many of the restrictions imposed in September — such as banning eating in restaurants and shutting gyms — had not been lifted before the third lockdown went into effect.
The final lockdown?
Health officials have expressed optimism that the latest closure will be the nation’s last as it steps up its vaccination drive.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Sunday that 280,000 Israelis had already received their first dose of the vaccine in the first week of the nationwide inoculation program.
“It keeps going up. We finished the first week of vaccinations with the incredible number of 280,000 vaccinated, with 71,000 of them over the weekend.” Edelstein said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday he sought to reach a vaccination rate of around 150,000 people a day within a week, and to have inoculated over 2 million Israelis by the end of January.
The lockdown was to be imposed as Health Ministry data released on Sunday morning showed 2,630 cases of coronavirus diagnosed a day earlier. There were 63,434 tests carried out on Saturday, with 4.1% of them returning a positive result. Testing numbers and new cases often fall off on weekends.
There were 35,560 active cases in Israel, with 604 patients in serious condition including 145 on ventilators. There were 172 patients in moderate condition and the remainder were defined as mild or suffering no symptoms.
There have been 400,099 people diagnosed with the coronavirus in Israel since the start of the pandemic.
The death toll stood at 3,222.