Ministers consider weekend lockdowns as infection rates hit new record highs
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Ministers consider weekend lockdowns as infection rates hit new record highs

1,939 new cases recorded over past 24 hours, the highest yet, as government expected to order businesses to close Friday afternoon for the duration of the weekend

People wearing face masks market in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People wearing face masks market in Jerusalem, on July 14, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Cabinet ministers met Thursday evening to consider new lockdown measures as the Health Ministry announced a record high of 1,939 new coronavirus infections over a 24-hour period.

“Within three weeks we’ll be at 1,600 in serious condition if we continue down this path without new restrictions,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned at the start of the cabinet meeting. “If we don’t flatten the curve, we’re putting many Israelis in danger.”

According to Channel 12 news, Health Ministry officials told cabinet ministers that Israel could see 20 coronavirus deaths a day next month if the rate of new infections isn’t curbed.

Ministers were expected to approve restrictions requiring most businesses to close from Friday at 5 p.m. and remain shuttered for the rest of the weekend, Channel 12 news reported. No restrictions on movement were expected.

Other reports said beaches, restaurants and gyms were likely to be closed at 5 p.m. on Friday.

But Netanyahu on Thursday asked Knesset Law Committee Chairman MK Ya’akov Asher to prepare legislation to be voted on next week that would grant the government the authority to declare full lockdowns on weekends.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, whose agency has led the effort to combat the virus, supports weekend closures, Channel 12 reported. Ben-Shabbat is also reportedly asking the ministers to order the country’s beaches closed starting Friday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, chairs an emergency meeting of senior ministers to decide on measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, on July 16, 2020. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has proposed that lockdowns be imposed on weeknights as a means to improve social distancing while minimally impacting the economy, Channel 12 said. It was not clear whether he was proposing the measure instead of weekend lockdowns or in addition.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn insisted on Thursday he would ensure that any restrictions don’t limit political protests, amid recent demonstrations against the government’s coronavirus policies as well as rallies against Netanyahu’s continued rule.

A list of nine proposed steps prepared by health officials was handed to ministers ahead of Thursday’s meeting, though many were likely to be rejected by the ministers. They included:

1. A complete lockdown throughout the country every weekend, from Friday at 5 p.m. till Sunday morning at 5 a.m. This proposal requires legislation, and so is not expected to be implemented this weekend.

2. Forbidding gatherings of over 10 people in closed spaces and 20 in open spaces — with an exception for workplaces and one’s nuclear family.

3. All educational activities, from kindergartens to universities, would take place online, with some exceptions for special education, at-risk youth and others.

(L-R) Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Council Chairman Meir Ben-Shabbat at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, on April 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

4. Sport activities would be permitted outside, but all indoor gyms would be shuttered.

5. Restaurants would be allowed to operate on a delivery and take-out basis only, with no in-house seating.

6. Public visiting hours in government ministries would be reduced.

7. Government offices would be reduced to half staff.

8. All cafeterias at workplaces would be closed, or switched to take-away.

9. At-risk populations would be asked to reduce social contact, avoid their workplaces — and receive compensation by the state.

Police in Jerusalem on July 13, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Record numbers

There were 1,939 new coronavirus cases confirmed in 24 hours, Health Ministry figures said on Thursday evening, a new single day record for Israel since the start of the pandemic.

As of Thursday night, there were 25,305 active cases in Israel. Among those currently sick, 202 were in serious condition, including 58 on ventilators. Another 110 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild symptoms or were asymptomatic.

Five people died of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the death toll to 384.

Of the 46,059 people to test positive for the coronavirus in Israel since the start of the pandemic, 20,370 have recovered. The ministry also said 30,509 tests were performed on Wednesday.

Medical workers simulate treatment for COVID-19 on a volunteer during a training session on July 9, 2020, as the coronavirus ward at Ziv Medical Center in the northern city of Safed prepares to reopen. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Ministers criticize the government

Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir was one of several ministers, lawmakers and officials to criticize the government over the proposed restrictions.

Zamir, a member of the Blue and White party, warned Thursday that some of the measures being considered “will cause enormous damage to the economy. Closing summer schools and daycares is a de-facto lockdown for parents who were set to go out to work,” he wrote on Twitter.

He noted it hadn’t yet been two weeks since the government implemented the last round of restrictions, so it would only be possible to see the effects of those restrictions next week.

“This is irresponsible and illogical behavior. The public trust in the government’s decisions is low, and making dramatic decisions like these haphazardly will only lower it further,” Zamir said.

Other ministers backed the more stringent approach being pushed by Netanyahu.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said the government had failed to take fast and robust measures to prevent a resurgence of the pandemic.

“When we were still at 100 [new] sick people a day we needed to prepare, with testing, quarantines and cutting the infection rate,” Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was quoted by Channel 12 as saying.

He warned the healthcare system could be overwhelmed in the winter, when Israel could face an outbreak of seasonal flu and coronavirus simultaneously.

Health officials have said it is not yet known how flu season would affect the coronavirus spread. The social distancing measures already in place may blunt the flu as well, or the combination could mean an unusually dangerous season.

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