A chain of shopping centers announced Sunday that some curbside stores would be allowed to reopen, in defiance of lockdown measures aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
Hay Galis, CEO of Big Shopping Centers, said that only street stores in “green” cities with low infection rates would be permitted to open on Monday. He added that store owners will be required to pay rent and other fees in full.
“When most of you received support and compensation… we did not receive a single shekel for this period, neither from the state nor you,” Galis wrote, referring to rent and management fees, in a letter to store owners that was quoted by Hebrew media. “There is no sharing of the burden or even a shekel from the Israeli government.”
Galis tore into the government for its handling of the pandemic, slamming the Health Ministry’s “hysteria and disconnect” and asserting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lacked either the ability or will to let stores reopen.
“The government simply does not understand the intensity of the damage,” he said.
He also argued that virus spread in stores was minimal and that owners of street-facing shops adhered to Health Ministry guidelines.
“This time we are fed up,” Galis said. “We are sick of the feeling that we are being turned from upright people into suckers.”
In August, Big allowed stores to open despite weekend lockdown restrictions in place at the time.
Most shops have been shuttered since a nationwide lockdown went into effect on September 18 and have not been permitted to reopen even after some restrictions began to be eased last month.
While some schools, houses of worship and beauty salons were permitted to reopen Sunday, the government pushed off a decision on stores in a move that infuriated small business owners and merchants — many of whom have denounced the government’s handling of the crisis and say they are being victimized.
The issue caused tensions on Friday during the coronavirus cabinet meeting that saw Finance Minister Israel Katz of the Likud clash with other officials, including Netanyahu, over the store reopenings.
Katz demanded that stores reopen on Sunday, while Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said the government should agree on lockdown decisions unanimously and stick to the reopening plan that called for easing measures every two weeks.
At the meeting, Netanyahu told ministers that the plan is to open street stores on November 15, but if the number of new virus cases diagnosed dips below 500 they will be allowed to open a week earlier, on November 8, according to leaks from the meeting picked up by the Walla news site.
On Saturday, Edelstein addressed complaints from owners of small street stores that large shops were permitted to sell products such as clothes because they were classified as food stores, while they had to remain shut.
“It is cannibalism and chutzpah and we need to find a way to deal with it,” Edelstein told Channel 13.
Finance Ministry chief economist Shira Greenberg has estimated the cost of the continued restrictions on the economy at NIS 2.3 billion ($673 million) a week.
Also Sunday, the Health Ministry said 218 new coronavirus cases were recorded the day before as testing plummeted over the weekend, while the number of patients in serious condition continued to decline.
According to ministry figures, there have been 314,498 infections since the pandemic began, 10,473 of which were active. Among those currently sick, 404 were in serious condition, with 180 on ventilators. Another 112 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
The death toll stood at 2,541, up two from the previous Health Ministry update on Saturday evening.
Though the number of new infections declined, testing rates nosedived, with only 7,635 performed Saturday. There has typically been a sharp drop in testing levels during weekends and holidays.
The positive test rate ticked up slightly to 2.9 percent.
“In recent days there are signs of a stabilization in the rate of positive tests and the number of confirmed patients,” the coronavirus task force wrote in its daily report, saying this signaled a “slowdown” in morbidity.
The report also noted a decline in the number of patients in serious condition and fatalities.
It warned, however, that the latest rollback of the lockdown could lead to a rise in cases, which it said would begin to be seen late next week.