Knesset panel votes to keep pools, beaches open; decision on restaurants pending
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Ministers to discuss allowing eateries to stay open

Knesset panel votes to keep pools, beaches open; decision on restaurants pending

Coronavirus committee delays vote on closures of food venues, gyms, museums amid talks to find compromise; urges eateries be permitted to seat patrons indoors at 35% capacity

People enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
People enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Knesset’s coronavirus committee voted Monday to keep pools and beaches open on weekends, contrary to a cabinet decision last week that would see those locations included in weekend closures aimed at halting a recent surge in infections.

The vote came after coalition whip Likud MK Miki Zohar told the panel the government was not opposed to the step.

Committee chair MK Yifat Shasah-Biton said “the decision to not close public pools and beaches is the right one… Mental and physical health are extremely important to all of us,” she said. “Beaches and swimming in the pool provide vital positive value.​​”

The committee met to discuss whether to approve the weekend closures decided upon by the cabinet Friday, as well as the open-ended closure of restaurants and cafes (except for takeway and delivery), gyms and other public places.

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

After hours of discussion, the panel urged the cabinet to reverse its decision to close restaurants starting Tuesday, and instead to allow them to operate at 35 percent capacity indoors while maintaining necessary social distancing between customers outdoors.

Ministers were set to discuss the matter in th evening, with Channel 12 reporting that Health Minister Yuli Edelstein would present a plan allowing restaurants to host up to 50 diners outdoors, with indoor seating banned.

Further discussions by the committee on restaurants were set for Tuesday, giving time for a possible compromise to be reached and the government to present an alternative plan.

The committee also called for gyms to be able to continue to operate under strict distancing measures. A vote on gyms, which have already been shuttered since Friday, was to be taken at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday.

During the committee session, Zohar called for compromise, saying the government did not intend to close beaches and swimming pools for now.

He said the correct course of action was to allow restaurants to have customers only in outdoor areas while observing social distancing rules, asserting that 80% of the country’s eateries would be able to open under those restrictions.

Regarding gyms, Zohar said there were indications that closed, air-conditioned rooms “have a serious problem regarding infection. If it is a closed place with open windows and without air-conditioning, it is less dangerous.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar speaks in the Knesset, Jerusalem on February 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch noted that Monday had already seen a significant reduction in daily infection rates, but warned the lawmakers that it was too early to tell if the drop was the beginning of a trend.

“We don’t know if that was an anomaly, I suggest that everyone not celebrate too much,” Kisch said.

He explained the government’s overall approach as being that “places that are closed, we want to remain closed. Places that are open can be operated under the Purple Badge limitations,” referring to the measures that businesses must undertake to certify they are adhering to hygiene and social-distancing requirements.

Shasha-Biton’s committee had previously overturned cabinet orders to shut gyms and swimming pools after the Health Ministry failed to produce infection data supporting the closure.

Her job is reported to be at risk for what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to view as excessive activism; the committee’s support is crucial for decisions approved by ministers to be implemented.

During a committee meeting Sunday, Shasha-Biton said that it was not clear that the new restrictions were warranted.

Ahead of Monday’s committee meeting, Shasha-Biton told the Ynet news site that the Health Ministry data presented to her committee on Sunday featured many inconsistencies and contradictions. She said much of the data “doesn’t necessarily support a lockdown, but rather other, creative solutions.”

Health Ministry data shown to the committee revealed that only 0.2%, or four of the traceable cases diagnosed last week, were found to have happened in pools or at the beach. The biggest infection point was in the home, accounting for 67% of traceable cases.

MK Yoav Kisch, then-chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Restaurateurs on Sunday threatened to defy the closure order planned for Tuesday, after similar threats forced a last-minute backtrack by the government on Friday.

While the government shuttered bars and clubs earlier this month, some nightlife institutions — particularly in Tel Aviv — have remained open by posing as cafes, though these, along with restaurants, are currently also set to be ordered shut on Tuesday morning, except for delivery and takeaway services.

According to recent legislation, the cabinet can swiftly pass emergency coronavirus regulations without the need for Knesset approval, but the legislature must sign off on the decisions within a week or they are automatically annulled.

Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein have repeatedly warned in recent days that the latest restrictions were necessary in order to avoid a full lockdown in the future.

The Health Ministry reported a sharp drop in new coronavirus infections on Monday, confirming only 1,139 cases in the previous 24 hours. Recent weeks have seen daily infections climb consistently to nearly 2,000.

The ministry update said 50,714 cases had been diagnosed since the start of the pandemic, including 28,424 active cases.

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