Israelis flood reopened strip malls, leading officials to fear fresh virus surge

With long lines and crowds not adhering to distancing rules, some shops extend opening hours or shut down; stall owners at Tel Aviv market open illegally to protest their closure

People shop at Bilu shopping center in Kiryat Ekron, November 17, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People shop at Bilu shopping center in Kiryat Ekron, November 17, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Shoppers packed strip malls across the country on Tuesday as the open-air shopping centers reopened in low-infection areas after months of closure, leading health officials to fear a virus resurgence that could force renewed restrictions.

Long lines and dense crowds formed outside stores in shopping centers in “green” zones as people waited to enter the stores, which are required to limit the number of customers inside. In many cases, customers did not adhere to social distancing rules, requiring police officers to step in.

Some of the stores closed down after owners concluded it was impossible to maintain distancing guidelines issued by the government.

“In a week, everyone here will be in quarantine,” a shopper in northern Israel told the Walla news site.

“People have lost proportion,” said another, 18-year-old Elay Segev from Haifa. “People shoved and elbowed each other. This is just a clothing shop. This line is scary, I fled straight away to avoid standing in a gathering. I think this will double the infection rate.”

Some chains announced that due to crowding, they will extend their opening hours until midnight.

Fuming that open-air shopping centers are allowed to reopen but not open-air markets, stall owners at Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market reopened illegally in protest. Some of them were fined by municipal officials.

“Why can’t we work? How long can we stay at home?” said one owner, holding back tears. “It’s not the money, the money can go to hell, we’re going crazy at home. I’ve put my store up for sale because I want to leave. I’m out of strength.”

Local shop owners open their stands at the Carmel Market in protest against the ongoing closure of the market, Tel Aviv, November 17, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials are deeply frustrated by the new steps easing the restrictions, Channel 12 reported, and are warning that a surge in infections will force their reversal within two or three weeks.

Alongside the reopening of strip malls, the coronavirus cabinet on Monday approved the designation of the Red Sea resort city of Eilat and hotels in the Ein Bokek area of the southern Dead Sea as “special tourist islands” with loosened regulations for Israeli visitors. Under the remaining lockdown restrictions, Israel still does not permit non-citizens or non-residents to enter the country.

The Health Ministry said tourist entry to those areas is allowed for those who have undergone a coronavirus test during the previous 72 hours and received a negative result. Residents of Eilat who wish to enter or reenter the city have to present a test result from the previous week or undergo a free, quick test at a facility that has been set up at the entrance to the city.

A coronavirus checkpoint at the entrance to the southern city of Eilat on November 17, 2020 (Flash90)

The further easing of restrictions came as there were 8,150 confirmed active cases in the country on Tuesday evening, with the total tally since the start of the pandemic at 325,537, with 862 new cases confirmed Monday, according to the Health Ministry.

Of the active cases, 317 were in serious condition, including 124 on ventilators. The death toll rose by one to 2,736. There were 542 patients hospitalized nationwide for treatment for COVID-19.

There were 49,236 tests carried out on Monday, with 1.8 percent of them returning a positive result. Non-final numbers for Tuesday said there were 28,876 tests with a 1.4% positive rate.

Israelis shop at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv, November 17, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials have reportedly expressed outrage that restrictions are being eased even as the basic reproduction rate — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — has topped 1.0, when 0.8 had been defined as the threshold beyond which restrictions would stop being eased. On Tuesday morning, Israel’s reproduction rate stood at a worrying 1.08, according to the Health Ministry.

They also decried that, contrary to previous plans, the government was not waiting two weeks between phases of reopening to ensure that certain steps weren’t causing infections to spike.

Unnamed sources told Channel 12 that although the number of people infected with the virus was not currently worryingly high, there were concerns that further easing of restrictions could lead to a loss of control over the outbreak.

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