Israel starts 3rd lockdown Sunday, as it ramps up vaccine distribution

6,000 cops being deployed to enforce closure, with focus on dispersing gatherings and New Year’s Eve parties, and cracking down on quarantine violations

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on December 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on December 25, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel on Sunday was set to impose its third nationwide lockdown since the start of the pandemic, with police deploying some 6,000 officers to enforce the rules.

The lockdown aimed at tackling the COVID-19 resurgence will begin at 5 p.m. and last for at least two weeks, though health officials have indicated it would likely be extended to a month.

The closure comes as daily coronavirus cases climbed steeply upward, surpassing 3,000 a day, amid fears that a British variant of the disease could be spreading undetected in the country.

It also comes a week after Israel launched its vaccination campaign. The inoculation drive — which has already seen over 250,000 Israelis receive the first dose of the vaccine — will kick into high gear this week, with hospitals joining the effort. Hundreds of IDF medics will also participate to help expedite the process.

A woman receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center in Modiin on December 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

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.

“There are three areas in which police plan to invest most of their resources,” police sources told Channel 13 on Saturday. “[Dispersing] gatherings, New Year’s parties and enforcing quarantine. We are aware that the public is tired and is hurting financially.”

The lockdown rules will bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to 1 kilometer from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce, leisure and entertainment (except for essentials); limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity.

Fines for those breaking rules stand at NIS 500 ($155).

Kindergartens and school grades 1-4 and 11-12 will have classes as usual during the lockdown, while grades 5-10 will study remotely.

A Magen David Adom medical worker tests Israelis at a mobile coronavirus testing site in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

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.

As of Saturday night, there were over 35,000 active coronavirus cases in the country, with 584 people in serious condition. On Friday, 3,995 new cases were diagnosed and some 4.7% of tests returned positive. The death toll stood at 3,210.

The number of cases has been steadily rising for weeks.

Health officials have expressed optimism that the latest closure will be the nation’s last as it steps up its vaccination drive.

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.

An Israeli citizen receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Maccabi Healthcare Services vaccination center in Tel Aviv on December 22, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Though the Health Ministry had yet to issue updated figures after Shabbat, Channel 12 News reported that some 266,000 people had gotten the first of two shots by the end of the first week of Israel’s vaccination push.

At a pace of 150,000 vaccines administered a day, Netanyahu said that within a month 2.25 million Israelis could receive both doses of the vaccine. That amounts to over a quarter of Israel’s 9.25 million population.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said in a statement Saturday night he would seek to vaccinate the country’s teachers this week, to help protect them as schools remain open during the new lockdown.

Israel currently ranks second globally in vaccinations per capita, after Bahrain, according to the University of Oxford-run Our World in Data.

On Friday, a top Health Ministry official said Israel aims to begin vaccinating all age groups and professions within 7-10 days. Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the acting head of the Health Ministry’s public health services, also told Channel 12 news that the ministry intends to move quickly to a 24/7 vaccination schedule.

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