Just keep swimming: 5 things to know for July 14
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Just keep swimming: 5 things to know for July 14

The Knesset goes rogue in reopening pools and gyms, drawing harsh rebuke from the government and health officials, as the press drowns under mounting predictions of a lockdown

Israeli youth at a swimming pool in the Israeli settlement of Vered Yeriho on July 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli youth at a swimming pool in the Israeli settlement of Vered Yeriho on July 1, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Rest period is over: The Knesset’s coronavirus committee voted Monday to immediately reopen outdoor swimming pools and gyms, in what is seen as a stunning rebuke of the government’s pandemic policies, the latest blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempts to control the virus and the agenda.

  • The move also bluntly pushes back against the government’s passage of a law that allows it to impose measures immediately and only have the Knesset panel approve them after the fact, and coalition whip MK Miki Zohar, who threatened panel head and fellow Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, has now been left flapping in the wind.
  • “In a rare sight, Netanyahu learned firsthand the limits of government power,” reads a headline in Walla news.
  • “[Shasha-Biton’s] stubbornness proves what it would be advisable to have confirmed — that the Knesset is not a rubber stamp for the government,” writes reporter Yaki Adamkar.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yuval Karni calls the move a “red card” for the government, borrowing a term from the world of soccer. “In one moment, members of the committee (opposition and coalition) decided to disrupt the despicable and unwritten rule between the Knesset and the government, and to make an independent decision against the government’s move,” he writes.
  • “In [Netanyahu’s] view, the power to severely infringe on Israelis’ human rights should be given to him and the cabinet, without the need for the ‘bureaucratic’ process of approval by the Knesset, which includes consultations with experts, legal advisers and the public. But this completely ignores the fact that the Knesset, not the cabinet, is both the representative of Israel’s sovereign power – the people – and the branch of government responsible for legislating,” chides Haaretz in its lead editorial. “Given the farce that occurred on Monday, it has become even more essential that the committee nix any possibility of the cabinet receiving wide-ranging powers to promulgate regulations that will be ‘approved retroactively’ by the Knesset.”
  • Israel Hayom columnist Gideon Alon bashes Zohar, and by extension Netanyahu, for trying to cow Shasha-Biton with an empty threat. Alon, though, seems most bothered by technical difficulties with such a move, noting that by law, a panel head cannot be removed, only suspended temporarily, via a complicated legislative procedure.
  • A longtime Knesset reporter, Alon says that he can’t ever remember a time when such a committee head was removed “for political reasons or a lack of satisfaction from the prime minister or coalition head.”

2. Jump in, the water’s tepid: In a preview of a full interview to be published Friday, Shasha-Biton pushes back in Israel Hayom against the charge that she is under the sway of the powerful pool and gym lobby.

  • “Gym owners aren’t big lobbyists. People are always coming to me who work hard for their livelihoods, and I always consider the professional statistics and look at the good of the public, she says.
  • Despite the seeming win, pool and gym owners and operators tell Ynet that they are worried that the fight is not over and they can be closed down again at any moment. “It’s causing customers to lose faith, opening and closing us every other day. The public understands that they can shut us with the flick of a wrist. What customer would want to come and buy an annual pass?” one owner tells the news site.
  • Speaking to Haaretz, Finance Minister Israel Katz says no business can operate according to the so-called accordion model of opening and closing: “No sector can operate like an accordion, which is why I firmly opposed closing restaurants. Sitting outdoors at a restaurant is low risk and sitting inside one is a moderate risk, and we’re saying that we won’t lose businesses like that, just high-risk businesses like events halls and pubs. The health care system can accurately predict contagion, but it doesn’t know what sectors need to be ordered closed or to reduce their activities.”
  • Channel 12 news notes that thanks to the” close now, approve later” mechanism, any fines levied against pools and gyms for opening will be canceled.
  • Shasha-Biton complained during the hearing that the Health Ministry had failed to bring her updated numbers showing that pools and gyms contribute to the spread of the virus. Prof. Eli Waxman, who led the NSA team dealing with the virus, tells Army Radio that all gathering spots should be shut and the lack of data is a stain on the Health Ministry.
  • “The main thing you need to do when you lose control of the virus is to clamp down on social gatherings. In these places there are gatherings and they contribute little to the economy,” he says. “The lack of knowledge on infection spots is the result of a serious failure by the Health Ministry in having researchers.”
  • If bad numbers are your thing, try this on for size. At 10:30 p.m. the Health Ministry reported the total COVID-19 death toll at 365. Ten hours later a report by Military Intelligence with supposedly more updated numbers puts the death toll at 364.

3. Sweating sickness: At least the decision to reopen pools and gyms gives Health Ministry officials and others a chance to pin the country’s widely pilloried pandemic “strategy” on a new scapegoat.

  • “These steps are irresponsible and are leading us to a full lockdown,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tells Army Radio.
  • Ynet quotes Health Ministry Deputy Director Itamar Grotto saying that he’ll continue to fight for gyms to be shut down. “From a professional standpoint, I can say that gyms are an infections hotspot, because people are doing aerobic exercises, people are huffing and puffing. Sweat is a stimulant and stimulates the chances of infection from machines. When someone sweats and the drops stick, you can get infected when you touch a machine.”
  • Channel 13 quotes senior health officials claiming that Israel is “a step away from a lockdown,” the exact same words used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over a week (which is apparently less than one step) ago.
  • “It can’t be that we operate from political considerations and not professional ones,” a source is quoted saying.
  • Channel 12 quotes another health source complaining that nobody wants to be locked down: “We want to lock down local authorities, but mayors oppose it. We want to close down yeshivas, the Haredi politicians are against. We want to shut gyms, the Knesset is against it. What’s left? We should close an ice cream stand? Nobody wants to be closed down. Instead of saying what we can’t do all the time, they should tell us what we can. Afterward, if the infections go up and we get to a lockdown, they won’t say we didn’t know.”

4. Reading the lockdown leaves: Many more people predict or call for lockdowns even without pointing a finger at gyms and pools, seeing doom and gloom in Israel’s future.

  • “The situation is bad. Within three and a half weeks every ICU for coronavirus patients will be totally full,” former atomic energy head Dov Schwartz tells Kan. “We need to do one of two things, put a full lockdown in place or take into account that there will be more dead.”
  • Waxman is quoted by ToI’s Nathan Jeffay saying that 500 patients in the ICU is an “inevitability,” and bringing up the scary specter of schools not reopening in the fall.
  • “If we don’t get the numbers down to tens we should not open the schools because the risk would be too high,” he says.
  • He later clarifies that he only means grades 4 and above: “If the prevalence remains as high as it is today — over 1,000 new infected daily — opening schools fully may have the effect of a renewed growth that will get us to 2,000, which will endanger the health care system. Under such conditions, we would recommend opening up only lower grades, up to third, and special needs classes.”
  • Health Ministry bureaucrat Morris Dorfman tells Army Radio that a full lockdown is not a question of if, but when. “As I see it, the Health Ministry needs to push its start off for two or three weeks and then have it go until the end of the summer, which will be the optimal time for a shutdown,” apparently referring to the fact that many Israelis take off for August anyway.
  • But writing for Channel 12, former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin writes that it’s not too late to avert the evil decree: “We can still stop the decline by enacting the many good proposals for building a system, putting in place processes and managing the crisis as it needs to be given its seriousness and complexity.”

5. No Uman is an island: Looking off into the future, Israel Hayom leads off the pages of its tabloid with a headline claiming that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, will be spent under a lockdown that will prevent families from visiting each other.

  • However, the actual story makes clear that there is no decision, and officials — likely the same ones who have been saying Israel is a step from a lockdown — are simply predicting this may happen.
  • “Senior Health Ministry officials told Israel Hayom that no final decision has been made, and policy for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot would be determined based on how the virus spreads in Israel and numbers of new confirmed cases in the next few weeks. However, the officials said, ‘The prevailing assessment right now is that there will be no alternative other than to issue orders to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with the nuclear family alone,’” it reports.
  • It also adds that the government may decide to just make do with an informational campaign meant to discourage visits and traveling, but otherwise leave actual rules or enforcement out of it.
  • Israelis who normally make for the Ukrainian pilgrimage site of Uman for the holiday should make plans to stay at home instead, with reports in the Hebrew press that Kiev is already banning visits by Israelis.
  • Channel 13 news reports that Ukraine made a point of telling Israel now so that people who normally visit Ukraine — which include scads of schnorrers who show up to the airport to beg for someone to buy them a ticket — can plan ahead.
  • A week ago, the mayor of the city said he was leaning toward banning visitors, fearing they could bring the virus with them. “In Uman, the situation is under control… But the arrival of a large number of foreigners from different countries could cause a coronavirus outbreak in our town,” he said, according to Ukraine’s UNIAN outlet.
  • “Terrible news: Tens of thousands of Israelis will need to spend Rosh hashanah praying in the land of Israel and having holiday meals with their families,” tweets Israel National News editor Uzi Baruch jokingly.
  • Perhaps Ukrainians can come here? “From an economic point of view, we need a full lockdown of a few days so that afterward we can reopen the skies,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz tells Army Radio.
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