Knesset committee head vows to reopen theaters, allow outdoor performances

Yifat Shasha-Biton, who has reversed several cabinet-imposed restrictions, warns that without a plan to permit shows, Israel ‘will not be able to resuscitate’ the culture industry

Street performers take part in a protest calling for financial support from the government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on May 20, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Street performers take part in a protest calling for financial support from the government at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on May 20, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Lawmakers indicated Monday that they would move to ensure public access to cultural events, including in some indoor venues, in the near future, seemingly setting up another brawl between the government and a Knesset committee that has already overturned several government closure orders.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, the head of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, who has recently butted heads with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by overruling several cabinet-imposed restrictions, said on Monday that she would make sure large theaters and smaller venues could reopen before the end of the summer.

“We want plans that will enable both indoor and outdoor events, but mostly outdoors,” she said during a meeting of her committee. “Winter will be just around the corner and we will not be able to resuscitate the [culture] industry. It is important for our national resilience.”

“We’re here to find the best way to open up the culture industry. We’ll talk about ‘how’ rather than about ‘if,'” she added.

Culture events, venues, bars and nightclubs are currently closed until further notice. All gatherings capped at 10 people indoors and 20 people outdoors.

The comments came during a meeting at which venue managers, performers and others complained about being shut down. Heads of cultural institutions warned that without a plan to enable performances to take place, they may collapse and never reopen.

“I’m informing you unequivocally that if you don’t decide on a clear plan to open [venues] immediately — we’ll open ourselves,” actress Dalia Simko said at the meeting. “We have small venues and a thirsty public. People are sick of sitting at home.”

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset Coronavirus Committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

The deputy director of the Health Ministry, Itamar Grotto, who also participated in the meeting, said there was a trend of “relative stability in the infection rates” in recent days, which could pose “an opportunity for change.”

“The Health Ministry is trying to see how we can help these places,” he said, noting that his ministry was in the process of preparing a “single comprehensive package that will be more clear to the public.”

He said those recommendations, which would include allowing cultural events, would be ready by Tuesday evening.

The culture industry has been hit particularly hard by government regulations meant to stem the virus’s spread, with events heavily restricted since the outbreak began. Many of those who work in the industry are self-employed and have less access to social benefits than salaried employees.

Earlier this month, amid a spike in infections, the cabinet passed a raft of restrictions to curb the spread of the virus. The restrictions limited the number of people allowed in restaurants and synagogues; reduced the number of passengers permitted on public transportation; hiked fines for not wearing face masks; and shut down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.

People protesting against the government’s decision to close the gyms following the spread of the Coronavirus outside the home of Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein in Herzliya, on July 22, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

However, Shasha-Biton’s Coronavirus Committee later overturned some of those restrictions, most recently on Thursday, when it allowed gyms across Israel to reopen Sunday, drawing the ire of her fellow party members, who are now seeking to neuter her committee with a law set to come into effect on August 10.

The committee has also decided to keep attractions such as zoos and museums open, after earlier having overruled cabinet decisions to close restaurants, pools and beaches.

There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy that say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the crisis, accompanied by outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.

That anger has spawned a protest movement that is one of the most dominant voices in the recent demonstrations outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.

Illustrative: People wearing face masks walk and shop at the Mamilla mall near Jerusalem’s Old City on July 6, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel saw the number of coronavirus cases rocket to around 2,000 a day in recent weeks, after managing to keep the virus in check during March and April, though in recent days the trend has appeared to stabilize somewhat, with both testing and new cases falling off by half.

On Friday The New York Times ranked Israel sixth in the world in new daily cases per 1 million people, with a little under 200 a day at that ratio. The US was just above it at a little over 200 per million, followed by South Africa, Panama, Bahrain and Oman, which led the pack with some 300 cases a day per million residents.

Experts have blamed a too-speedy reopening and the lack of an effective contact tracing program as main factors in the virus resurgence, which has come as new daily virus cases around the world have also reached record highs.

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