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'We came fast before there's another lockdown'

Israelis flood reopened malls as task force warns of clear rise in virus cases

Reopening of shopping centers across Israel comes amid rising infections; positive test rate increases to 2% as daily new cases surge above 1,000 for 2nd day in a row

People shop at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan after it reopened, November 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
People shop at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan after it reopened, November 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

There were long lines on Friday morning at stores inside the 15 malls that were permitted to reopen as part of a pilot plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as a military task force said recent data showed a “clear and consistent” rise in the number of virus cases in Israel.

A number of malls opened their doors as part of a pilot plan approved by the high-level coronavirus cabinet, amid signs that new COVID-19 infections were increasing. Outdoor market areas and some museums will also be allowed to reopen as part of the pilot plan.

The opening of stores drew crowds of shoppers who waited in line to enter shops. However, Channel 13 news reported that the heads of some shopping chains complained that by limiting the number of malls permitted to open, crowding was inevitable.

“They have doomed us to failure,” said one unnamed business owner.

People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on November 27, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A woman named only as Shira told the Ynet news site that they came to the mall as it opened amid fears the country could be heading toward a third lockdown.

“My brother has a bar mitzvah soon, so we came fast before there’s another lockdown so that we could buy him clothes for the event. I think people have reached the end of their tethers, so there was no choice but to open [up commerce],” she said.

Finance Minister Israel Katz dismissed concerns that widespread opening of commerce could cause a rise in cases.

Finance Minister Israel Katz visits Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on November 27, 2020 (Yonathan Sindel/Flash90)

“There is no reason for this reopening to cause a further lockdown,” Katz said during a tour of Jerusalem’s packed Mahane Yehuda market. “But enforcement in centers of morbidity should be increased.”

A total of 15 malls around the country were permitted to reopen, including nine chosen by lottery overnight and six that earlier received approval.

The Economy Ministry said the lottery winners were Big Fashion in Beit Shemesh, Center 1 in Jerusalem, Arad Mall, M Haderech in Beit Herut, Seven Stars in Herzilya, Sharonim in Hod Hasharon, CineMall in Haifa, Arena Mall in Nahariya and Mall One in Nof Hagalil. The other six malls belong to two of Israel’s leading mall operators, the Azrieli Group and Ofer. They are in Jerusalem, Haifa, Kiryat Bialik, Ramat Gan, Petah Tikva and Beersheba.

The mall owners pushed to have the shops open in time to be able to offer Black Friday sales.

Store owners and employees will undergo special training. Essential businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, will be allowed to admit more customers than nonessential ones. Mall owners or operators who violate the guidelines will be hit with a NIS 5,000 ($1,500) fine for each infraction.

At the end of the pilot, officials will draw conclusions about the safety of mall openings and decide when, and how, shopping centers in Israel will reopen. The criteria will be based on compliance with occupancy limits, mask-wearing and preventing gatherings from forming at the entrances to the malls and stores.

People shop at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan after it reopened, November 27, 2020 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Malls have been closed — except for the essential stores within them — since mid-September under lockdown rules. Street-front stores were allowed to reopen earlier this month, with a cap on the number of customers, which was raised from four to 10 on Wednesday.

The reopening came as a report by a military task force warned that the country’s virus cases were now rising “in a clear and consistent manner,” adding that the increase in testing alone did not fully account for the rise in the number of identified infections.

On Friday morning, the virus’s basic reproduction number — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — reached 1.13. The figure is based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus’s incubation period.

A basic reproduction number of over 1 indicates that case numbers will begin to expand exponentially.

The coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers dealing with the outbreak, had initially decided that the lockdown exit should only start if the transmission rate is under 0.8. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, rollback measures are supposed to be halted if the rate rises. The government has ignored that benchmark, however, pressing on with easing restrictions.

Senior health officials have warned repeatedly about the necessity for a possible third national lockdown in Israel to contain the coronavirus, warning against further easing of restrictions until an additional drop in infections.

Data released by the Health Ministry on Friday morning showed Israel remaining above 1,000 new daily cases in the latest indication that the spread of the virus may be re-accelerating, even as the government pushes ahead with reopening the country from its second lockdown.

Hospital team members move patients to the new coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on November 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The positive test rate rose to 2 percent, with 52,516 tests carried out on Thursday.

There were 1,072 new cases diagnosed on Thursday, the ministry figures released on Friday morning showed.

Five overnight fatalities took the death toll to 2,834.

The active number of coronavirus cases in the country rose to 9,575 out of a total 333,443 cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic.

Of those sick with the virus, 275 were in serious condition, with 117 patients on ventilators. There were 68 people in moderate condition.

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