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Lawmakers ratify lockdown extension but ease rules on air travel

Knesset panel okays government decision to extend closure to Sunday night; new exceptions to 1-kilometer limit include travel to weddings, professional sports training

The Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approves an extension of the nationwide lockdown until October 18, October 14, 2020 (Knesset spokesperson's office)
The Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approves an extension of the nationwide lockdown until October 18, October 14, 2020 (Knesset spokesperson's office)

Knesset lawmakers on Wednesday approved the government’s extension of the nationwide lockdown until Sunday night, while easing rules on air travel, professional sports training, and weddings.

The Constitution, Law and Justice Committee voted 9-6 to keep most of the closure rules, which were set to expire Wednesday, in force through October 18.

Under the newly approved health regulations, Israelis are still confined within one kilometer of their homes and only essential businesses are permitted to open.

But the airport will see its restrictions lifted on Friday and Israelis will again be permitted to leave the country.

Travellers at the almost empty halls of Ben Gurion International Airport, during a nationwide lockdown, October 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/FLASH90)

Brides, grooms, their close relatives and officiators will be permitted to exceed the one-kilometer limit to attend weddings, which remain limited to 20 people outdoors and 10 indoors. Professional athletes can travel for the purpose of training.

The government has not extended its emergency restriction of protests, and weekly rallies against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are set to resume in Jerusalem on Saturday.

The committee chairman, United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, nevertheless implored protesters to stay indoors to stem the virus spread.

“This week is not the time for protests but rather to stay home,” he said, “so that we may return to work.”

Asher said Israelis would see many restrictions lifted next week.

Protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and coronavirus lockdown measures in Tel Aviv on October 10, 2020. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Ministers will convene again Thursday to discuss lifting some restrictions next week “in accordance with the morbidity statistics,” including allowing takeout from restaurants and the reopening of preschools and some small businesses that don’t receive in-person customers.

During the coronavirus cabinet meeting on Tuesday, top health officials presented data on current infection rates and on the benchmarks that needed to be reached to lift restrictions.

“The experts said the decision to ease the lockdown and allow the gradual reopening requires definite and continued reduction in morbidity,” a joint statement from the Health Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office said. “To reach this, additional days are required.”

Elderly Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside a senior living facility in Tel Aviv on October 13, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic began, started on September 18 and had been slated to end automatically on October 14.

Though ministers voted unanimously on Tuesday night to extend the lockdown, they were reportedly divided during the meeting over how long it should stay in force.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu recommended to ministers that the current terms of the lockdown remain in effect in cities with high infection rates, even after the closure is eased in the rest of the country, according to leaks from the meeting. Gamzu listed a series of towns that would qualify as “red” under Health Ministry criteria, most of which have a sizeable ultra-Orthodox population.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry has a phased exit plan spanning four months that would see the country gradually return to normal activity, starting with increased freedom of movement and eventually reopening daycares, schools, synagogues, malls and other venues. The stages would only kick into gear when the national daily tally dips below 2,000 cases and the person-to-person spread is slowed.

The Health Ministry said just 2,255 cases were confirmed on Tuesday, bringing the country’s total tally since the start of the pandemic to 297,274, of which 48,015 are active cases. Less than three weeks ago, daily infections were above 8,000.

The rate of positive coronavirus test results is the lowest since July, the Health Ministry said.

The Health Ministry plan has faced criticism from members of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, other lawmakers, and bureaucrats who have urged a swifter end to restrictions and school closings.

Schools were shuttered last month as part of the nationwide lockdown. Cabinet ministers are facing growing pressure to reopen classes soon, with many Israelis unable to work because they have to watch their young children.

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