Government ministers overnight Wednesday approved a pilot plan to open 15 malls around the country as Israel continues to emerge from its second nationwide coronavirus lockdown, even as the spread of the virus appears to be accelerating.
Outdoor market areas and some museums will also be allowed to reopen as part of the pilot plan, which aims to test the efficacy of virus safety guidelines.
The so-called coronavirus cabinet approved the plan, which was put forward by the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Economy and Industry.
The malls will likely be allowed reopen on Friday and remain open until December 6. The mall owners pushed to have the shops open by Friday tobe able to offer Black Friday sales.
During the pilot program, the malls will be required to adhere to Health Ministry regulations to track attendance, measure compliance with virus rules and limit gatherings. The reopenings will be monitored by inspectors from the Health Ministry.
Store owners and employees will undergo special training. Essential stores, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, will be allowed to admit more customers than nonessential ones.
Mall owners or operators who violate the guidelines will be hit with a NIS 5,000 ($1,500) fine for each infraction.
At the end of the program, officials will draw conclusions about the safety of mall openings and decide when, and how, malls in Israel will reopen. The criteria will be based on compliance with occupancy limits, mask-wearing and preventing gatherings from forming at the entrances to the malls and stores.
Six of the malls have been selected already, and the remaining nine will be determined by lottery, in the interest of fairness to owners and the public.
The six malls already approved for the pilot belong to two of Israel’s leading mall operators, the Azrieli Group and Ofer, which will open three malls each. The nine remaining malls will not belong to these companies, and will be spread around the country.
The six malls already cleared for the pilot are in Jerusalem, Haifa, Kiryat Bialik, Ramat Gan, Petah Tikva and Beersheba.
Outdoor markets will also be allowed to reopen, with attendants at the entrances enforcing social distancing, mask-wearing and limiting the number of people allowed in. Eating will not be allowed in either markets or malls.
The Health Ministry also decided to reopen four museums — the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv and the Israel National Museum of Science, Technology, and Space in Haifa.
Three other museums, in different areas of the country, will be chosen for reopening by lottery.
Last week, some malls in Israel opened in a rebellion against lockdown rules amid widespread frustration among store owners against government policies that kept indoor malls shuttered.
Malls have been closed — except for the essential stores within them — since mid-September under lockdown rules. Street-front stores were allowed to reopen earlier this month, with a cap on the number of customers, which was raised from four to 10 on Wednesday.
The initial opening of stores drew crowds of shoppers who in many instances ignored social distancing as they waited in line to enter stores.
Senior health officials have warned repeatedly about the necessity for a possible third national lockdown in Israel to contain the coronavirus, warning against further easing of restrictions until an additional drop in infections.
Health Ministry figures released Wednesday night showed 9,168 active patients in the country, a level not seen in nearly three weeks. Out of the total active cases, 285 are in serious condition.
Since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, 331,915 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. There have been 2,826 deaths.
Israel imposed a monthlong lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system. The government has since begun lifting the restrictions but health officials have sounded alarms as the drop in infection rates first slowed, and then reversed.