The Israeli government is set to announce further widespread and stringent measures to try to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, including transitioning staff at workplaces deemed non-essential to work from home, and further limiting public gatherings and movement. The raft of new measures, in addition to those already in force, are likely to paralyze up to 50 percent of the Israeli economy, TV reports said Friday night.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat Friday with top ministers and advisers working on the next steps and was expected to make the announcements on Saturday night, Hebrew media reported. However, Israel was expected to stop short of declaring a state of emergency or imposing a lockdown or curfews.
Among the steps being discussed and likely to be announced are ordering non-essential workers to work from home, limitations or bans on public transport, shutting preschools and creches, limiting access to some malls and shutting others. Some government workers will also be shifted to working from home, TV reports said. Officials were said to be working to determine how many Israeli workers would be classified as non-essential.
All essential workers and workplaces would continue as usual, with extra staff to be recruited.
The government was also considering releasing prisoners with light sentences to reduce prison crowding.
Despite the devastating effects to the economy, officials have repeatedly promised that there will be no food shortages, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday there was “no reason to storm the supermarkets.”
“We are investing considerable means right now to increase the pace of testing, to reduce the infection rate and – of course – to reinforce, strengthen and safeguard the medical teams, as well as many other things,” Netanyahu said after the Friday meeting.
“There will be enough food in general and for the (upcoming Passover) holiday,” Netanyahu said.
Like many other places in the world, Israelis have been stocking up on supplies, fearing extended periods of quarantine, lockdown orders, or shortages.
Further financial steps were being planned to help people affected by the crisis, lost work and shut businesses, reports said, including easing criteria for unemployment benefits. Banks would also be encouraged to ease terms for loan repayments.
Channel 12 said Israel was also considering reducing or barring the entry of Palestinian workers from the West Bank and would consider giving the Palestinian Authority some kind of financial compensation to ensure the Palestinian economy did not collapse.
Israel has already closed universities and schools across the country.
Israel has taken a number of far-reaching measures to contain and fight the virus, but has so far stopped short of steps such as banning all non-essential domestic travel or ordering the closure of most businesses.
All Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals were barred from entering the country as of Thursday at 8 p.m., unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks. Some 35,000 Israelis are said to be in quarantine, almost 1,000 of them doctors and over 600 nurses. Three Israelis are seriously ill with the virus, and almost 150 have tested positive. Nobody has died.
Any public gatherings of over 100 people have been banned, leading to the cancellation of sports games and numerous other events, as well as the closure of theaters and many hotels.
That order, which went into effect Thursday, applies to weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals, and covers “both closed and open spaces,” according to the Health Ministry.
The regulation has also impacted religious life, with Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef on Thursday calling on Israelis to avoid large prayer gatherings at the Western Wall and saying Health Ministry directives should be treated as Jewish law “for all intents and purposes.”
Police announced Friday they were carrying out hundreds of inspections to ensure compliance with the ban on gatherings of over 100 people.
Across the world, authorities have canceled sporting events, theater productions, TV show tapings, concerts and anything that draws a crowd in a frantic effort to keep the virus from spreading in places where people congregate.
The closures are just the latest blow wrought by a series of measures that have seen public life in Israel and around the world contract significantly in the hopes of cutting down meetings between people and chances for the virus to spread.
Netanyahu on Thursday called the pandemic “a global event unlike anything” the country had seen. He warned that “the potential number of deaths is very high and we must take action to prevent that.” Tens of thousands of Israeli lives were at stake, he said, and he intimated that tens of millions could die worldwide if the virus was not thwarted.
He said Israel’s efforts were focused on slowing the spread of the virus so that it doesn’t cause vast numbers of ill people to require medical attention at the same time and overwhelm the health care system.
Netanyahu called on his political rival, the Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz, to join him and immediately form a temporary emergency government following a year-long political deadlock. Gantz has indicated a willingness to do so, though the terms of such a government were not immediately clear.
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said his ministry was aiming to greatly expand the number of Israelis tested every day for COVID-19, from the current 600 to 2,000 and more.
Worldwide, there have been over 134,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and over 5,600 deaths since it first emerged in China in December, according to AFP figures.
The World Health Organization has declared the virus a pandemic and warned Friday it was “impossible” to know when it would peak.