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Ministers decide to reopen malls after pushing off planned nightly virus curfew

All shopping centers, museums and outdoor markets open on Wednesday morning, as legal challenges prompt coronavirus cabinet to scrap 3-week nighttime lockdown plan

Shoppers at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)
Shoppers at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

After legal challenges prompted the government on Tuesday to scrap a planned nightly curfew to curb the climbing coronavirus infection rate, ministers approved opening malls across the country starting Wednesday morning.

The coronavirus cabinet in a late-night telephone meeting decided that all malls will be allowed to reopen, along with all outdoor markets and museums, the Health Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office said in a joint statement Tuesday night.

The stores and malls will be subject to social distancing restrictions to limit crowding, with computerized registration systems tracking the number of people entering malls and guards limiting the number of shoppers in outdoor markets.

Malls, museums and markets will all be required to have attendants enforce virus restrictions, including mask-wearing and rules against eating in malls and markets.

The new measures will be in effect at least until December 23.

The statement did not explain why the government had decided to reverse course on tightening restrictions after pushing off the plan for nighttime curfews.

Fifteen malls, outdoor markets and some museums were opened late last month in a pilot plan meant to test the efficacy of virus safety restrictions. Street-facing stores and essential businesses had already been allowed to reopen. Israel’s daily new cases have been gradually rising as the economy has opened up.

The Tuesday decision to reopen malls was made following pressure by Finance Minister Israel Katz and Economy Minister Amir Peretz, who did not want the government to appear biased against the malls that were not included in the original pilot, the Ynet news site reported.

Between 120 and 140 malls remained closed during the pilot, the Walla news site reported.

Healthcare workers take test samples from Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Lod, on December 1, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

“It is especially important during these days to open commerce for the benefit of business owners’ livelihoods and for providing services ahead of the winter and the Hannukah holiday,” Katz said, according to Walla. “I call on the store operators and shoppers to be very strict about the rules in order to prevent infections and allow for continued market activity.”

Also on Tuesday night, ministers decided to enforce localized lockdowns on the towns of Zalafa and Musmus, and on the Daliyat al-Carmel regional council, all near the northern city of Haifa, due to high infection rates. The closure will begin at 7 p.m. Wednesday and continue until December 14.

The planned nightly curfew, which was supposed to start on Wednesday and last three weeks, was scrapped earlier Tuesday due to legal obstacles. Representatives of the attorney general cautioned that they would not be able to defend the government’s decision to impose a nightly curfew against possible legal challenges because senior Health Ministry officials were not on board with the move.

The curfew was also challenged as ineffective by senior health officials including the coronavirus czar, Nachman Ash, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

“Following the legal difficulties that have arisen in approving a nighttime closure, which is intended to prevent a general lockdown, alternatives are now being examined that will make it possible to prevent gatherings on Hanukkah and toward the end of the year,” a statement said.

“The Health Ministry is continuing to work on drafting the resolution and therefore the cabinet meeting scheduled for tonight will be postponed and is expected to take place tomorrow,” it added.

Israeli border police enforce mask-wearing in Jerusalem, December 08, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

According to a Channel 12 report, the justice officials relied in their opinion on the coronavirus omnibus law passed earlier this year, which stipulates that lockdown measures — apparently including curfews — may only be imposed in the absence of alternatives and only when their efficacy is clear.

The report said the justice officials also raised concerns that a curfew would increase daytime crowding because it would force businesses to close during the evening, and could thus have the effect of raising, rather than curbing, overall morbidity.

According to Channel 12, the Health Ministry will now recommend pinpoint closures based on local rates of infection, while specifically cracking down on Jewish areas with more serious outbreaks over Hanukkah and highly infected Christian-majority areas over Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The Health Ministry also seeks to establish that once Israel sees 2,000 cases a day — a benchmark it will likely reach next week — all stores, open-air markets and malls will close.

Israel imposed its second nationwide lockdown in mid-September over the High Holidays, and it remained fully in place until mid-October, when the government began to gradually lift the rules. It has yet to lift all of the restrictions imposed at that time.

The country recorded its highest number of daily coronavirus cases in almost two months on Monday, as runaway infections upended the country’s gains during its second national lockdown and threatened to bring a third crashing down.

There were 1,837 new cases of the virus diagnosed on Monday, the Health Ministry said Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections since the outset of the pandemic to 347,331.

The last time Israel had more than 1,800 daily cases was on October 10, when it was still at the height of its second lockdown. Israel has seen daily case tallies nearly double in the last two weeks, according to a report from the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center.

Israel’s first batch of vaccines from overseas are expected to arrive on Wednesday or Thursday, and the Health Ministry reportedly told Israel’s health maintenance organizations that December 20 is the target date to begin vaccinating Israelis against COVID-19.

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