Israel’s virus death toll hits 600; outdoor cultural performances set to resume
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Israel’s virus death toll hits 600; outdoor cultural performances set to resume

Ministers extend measures capping public gatherings, keeping pubs, water parks and indoor entertainment venues closed

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home, during a protest by Israelis from the culture and art industry demanding the restarting of performances amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Rosh Haayin, on August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to the media outside his home, during a protest by Israelis from the culture and art industry demanding the restarting of performances amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in Rosh Haayin, on August 9, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Cabinet ministers on Sunday approved new coronavirus restrictions and extended existing ones in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19, as the country’s death toll since the start of the pandemic climbed to 600.

But the government also announced a new framework for reopening theaters, symphonies and cultural events. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this framework, with outdoor venues divided into “capsules” for up to 20 people each, would be instituted immediately, and that a format for indoor events would be “formulated in the coming weeks.”

Many of the restrictions reaffirm existing rules already in place under special emergency powers. Under the coronavirus law passed last month, the Knesset has 24 hours to cancel or amend the restrictions before they go into effect. The previous raft of rules expires Tuesday.

The fresh restrictions, which go into effect Tuesday, continue to cap gatherings at 20 people outdoors and 10 indoors, limit cars to three passengers at a time, and limit businesses to one customer on the premises for every seven square meters (75 square feet) of space.

Businesses will be prohibited from serving customers who are not wearing masks, must take the temperature of those who ask to enter the premises, and must post signs detailing appropriate behavior.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews wait to cross a closed road as they wear protective face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Ashdod, Israel, July 2, 2020 (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Shared eating spaces in open-air markets and in shopping malls will be closed. Deliveries must be left outside recipients’ doors.

The new restrictions offer bad news for many business owners, extending the closures of bars, nightclubs, water parks, event halls and other recreational sites.

But for the first time since the first wave of closures in March, Sunday offered a path forward for Israeli cultural venues.

The Prime Minister’s Office announced it had approved, together with the ministries of health, culture and finance, a new framework for reopening theaters, symphonies and cultural events. Performances would take place outdoors, and audiences would be divided into 20-person “capsules,” with each event requiring approval by the Health Ministry in consultation with the Culture Ministry.

Netanyahu said the new step was introduced after he and other key ministers met with representatives of artists and producers. “We made a decision to open events in open spaces, in capsules in a very controlled format… This is important news and it will – of course – give encouragement not only to Israeli artists but also to the citizens of Israel.”

Said Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper: “I am very pleased that the world of culture is returning to life… It is also good news for the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people who are in desperate straits. It is also important news for millions of Israelis who, in difficult times, will be able to go back to consuming culture.”

The cabinet decision also gave Health Ministry district doctors the power to order a business closed if a coronavirus carrier is confirmed to have been on site.

Border Police wearing protective masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic walk past closed shops on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City on April 8, 2020. (Gali Tibbon/AFP)

According to the Health Ministry, Saturday saw 763 new confirmed carriers. In all, some 82,670 Israelis have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic reached the country in February. At the moment, 393 are hospitalized in serious condition and 118 are on ventilators.

Late last week, the Health Ministry said that Israel’s hospitals were struggling to keep up with the infection rate. Jerusalem’s Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center was Israel’s most overwhelmed hospital, rising on Thursday evening to 202% of standard capacity in its coronavirus ward and to 204% on Friday. According to the Ynet news site, the hospital has been sending patients to other medical centers to try to ease the caseload. Officials have also looked at opening a new ward to handle the influx of patients.

Four other hospitals, including Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek, were at 100% capacity or higher.

Jerusalem is one of Israel’s COVID-19 hotspots, and currently has more active cases than any other city, with 3,779.

The government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said Thursday that Israel’s coronavirus infection rates were the highest in the world relative to population size, and warned that the country could face another nationwide lockdown if daily confirmed cases were not brought down to “hundreds” by September 1.

Prof. Roni Gamzu (Flash90)

The virus czar also presented his color-coded system, under which cities and towns will see virus restrictions adapted to their local rates of infection. In “red” cities, he said, the highest level, schools may not open in the fall, he said, while “green” cities will see loosened restrictions on gatherings and outdoor events.

At Gamzu’s prodding, the government decided Thursday to cancel weekend closures on shopping centers, stores and markets that had been implemented to stymie the spread of the coronavirus, after establishing that the regulations weren’t driving down infection rates.

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