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Katz said to warn indiscriminate closure driving millions to despair and hunger

Finance minister calls to reopen businesses of up to 10 people, preparing series of grants; Netanyahu: Stop trying to garner votes at expense of public’s health

A man sleeps on a public bench next to closed shops on Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem, on September 23, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A man sleeps on a public bench next to closed shops on Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem, on September 23, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Finance Minister Israel Katz harshly criticized the government’s coronavirus lockdown policy on Wednesday, saying that the indiscriminate closure would unnecessarily drive millions of Israelis to hunger and despair.

“I will not let millions of people sink into the despair and the disgrace of hunger because of the Health Ministry’s incorrect decisions — to close the entire economy without any distinction [between different buisnesses] and without any health justifications,” Hebrew language media quoted him as saying. He was speaking during a meeting at the Treasury to formulate a plan to hand out grants to citizens who have been unemployed for long periods due to coronavirus.

The Prime Minister’s Office hit back at Katz, accusing him of trying to garner votes at the expense of the public’s health.

A statement said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has not succumbed to pressures from within or outside the government from those who are trying to garner votes at the expense of public health. The economy will be stronger only when the public is healthier.”

The exchange comes after weeks of disagreements between the Finance Ministry, health officials, and Netanyahu himself, on how to stem Israel’s coronavirus infection rate while attempting to minimize damage to the economy.

Katz protested what he called a lack of enforcement in high infection areas, and instead, the imposition of a blanket closure of the whole economy.

“Instead of enforcement in places where people get infected, they close places of employment that do not receive customers and do not have infection outbreaks. It doesn’t make sense that crowds of 10 people can gather, but businesses with up to 10 people cannot open– nobody accepts this,” he said according to the reports. The comments were seen as implicitly critical of Netanyahu and some other Likud ministers, who are said by critics to be keeping small businesses closed because it would otherwise be harder to justify the ongoing restrictions on anti-Netanyahu demonstrations.

During the meeting, Katz announced the Finance Ministry’s plan to help the self-employed and the unemployed facing financial difficulties due to coronavirus lockdown measures.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to the plan, advances and payments will be handed out to the self-employed, and anyone who was unemployed at least 100 days this year and earned under 8,000 NIS (2,350 USD) the month before they were unemployed, will be eligible to receive a government grant.

The plan also detailed efforts to encourage people back to work by offering enlarged grants to those who begin working again, with plans to pay out the money in four installments alongside their paychecks.

Katz said that the plan was to ensure “people had something to live on” while the economy struggles to reopen, stressing that the next two months will be “very difficult.”

The Bank of Israel estimated Wednesday that each week the country remained closed without opening businesses that do not have customers will cost the economy about NIS 2.8 billion ($822 million) and will leave 400,000 people unemployed. It also estimated that around 195,000 people work at places with less than 10 workers.

On Sunday it was reported that Katz, Economy Minister Amir Peretz, and Science Minister Izhar Shai all supported reopening many businesses, as well as permitting preschools to open so that parents of small children are able to go to work, immediately after the Sukkot holiday, which ends on October 9.

View of the closed down shops in the Givatayim Mall, on October 05, 2020. Israel has seen a spike of new COVID-19 cases bringing the authorities to reimpose a nationwide lockdown which will last at least three weeks. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Katz announced that he would recommend to the cabinet that “50 percent” of them open after the holiday, especially those businesses that have 10 or fewer employees or that have no walk-in customers.

Businesses in those categories have not been identified as significant sources of coronavirus infection, treasury officials have argued, while their reopening will dramatically reduce the economic pain of the lockdown.

In a video released on social media on Sunday, Netanyahu pushed back against the pressure to reopen quickly, and last week, Netanyahu warned ministers that the current coronavirus lockdown — which has drastically limited public life and shuttered the education system along with many businesses and has limited the right to protest — may last months or even up to a year.

Health Ministry officials have also urged the government not to lift the lockdown measures until the infection rate has dropped dramatically.

Last week, health officials told the Knesset that the lockdown would have to remain in place until the number of daily confirmed carriers drops below 2,000 and the positivity rate goes under 7%.

A Clalit Health Services worker takes a swab sample at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in the central city of Lod, on October 2, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

New Health Ministry figures released Wednesday night further suggested the spread of the coronavirus in Israel was slowing amid a weeks-long national lockdown.

According to the Health Ministry, 3,277 people had tested positive for COVID-19 since midnight, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 281,481.

The death toll rose to 1,824, with 18 new fatalities since midnight Tuesday.

Of the 63,043 active cases, 866 were in serious condition, with 238 on ventilators. Another 306 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The ministry said 36,702 tests had so far been completed Wednesday, 8.4 percent of which came back positive, the lowest rate in three weeks.

Tuesday’s positive test rate was 10.5%, the lowest since September 19, the day after the current lockdown began.

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