Government ministers decided early Friday to move forward the reopening of synagogues to Sunday, but that street stores must remain closed until at least November 8, as Israel gradually rolls back its coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
The coronavirus cabinet also shortened the Health Ministry’s nine-stage lockdown exit plan to six stages.
The ministers made the decisions after a lengthy virtual meeting that saw Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud clash with other officials, including party leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, over the store reopenings.
Katz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein of Likud voted against the decision, according to Hebrew media reports. Katz demanded stores reopen on Sunday, while Edelstein said the government should agree on lockdown decisions unanimously, and stick to the reopening plan that called for easing measures every two weeks.
Synagogues were supposed to remain closed until November 15, according to the original reopening plan. The number of worshipers will be limited to 10 indoors, and 20 outdoors.
The coronavirus cabinet also decided that vacation rental homes can resume business on Sunday, but that only nuclear families can stay in the homes, and that renters cannot use public pools or dining halls in the homes’ communities.
Hairdressers and beauty parlors will also be allowed to reopen on Sunday, as well as “one-on-one” activities, including driving lessons and personal fitness training, Channel 12 reported.
Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said during the meeting that a number of cities with high infection rates, mostly with majority Arab populations, may need to remain on lockdown: Taybeh, Kafr Kanna, Deir al-Asad, Kafr Kassem, Kafr Qara and I’billin.
The reopening of street stores will only go forward if infection rates are below 500 per day. If daily cases remain above 500, shops will only reopen on November 15, the date set in the initial reopening plan. Malls and market areas are likely to remain shuttered, the Ynet news site reported.
The decision to reopen street shops a week early was a compromise between the Health Ministry, which wanted to keep the stores shuttered until November 15, and the Finance Ministry, which wanted them reopened on Sunday.
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.
Most of the damage to the economy, she wrote, stems from the restrictions still in place on commerce and trade. This alone costs the economy an estimated NIS 1.4 billion a week, she said.
Katz appealed to Netanyahu during the meeting to move up the store reopenings, but the premier refused.
Katz raised Netanyahu’s ire by tweeting during the meeting against the Blue and White party, and calling for the store reopenings.
Katz tweeted that he had called for Netanyahu’s support, and said, “The Health Ministry is acting opaquely and conducting a costly campaign on the backs of small businesses, which started their businesses with their bare hands and are now on the verge of collapse.”
Netanayahu was told of the tweets during the discussion, and said, “This is something new. Whoever tweets during a discussion does not need to be a Knesset member,” according to the Ynet news site.
Israel appeared to be inching downward to 500 cases a day on Thursday evening, with the Health Ministry announcing 688 new cases of the virus had been diagnosed Wednesday.
Since the start of the outbreak 313,114 people in Israel have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. There are 11,164 active patients of whom 440 are in serious condition, with 191 on ventilators, the ministry said. Another 113 have moderate symptoms and the rest have mild or no symptoms.
There were 14 deaths added since the previous update, bringing the national toll to 2,508.
Of 33,439 virus test results returned Wednesday, 2.1 percent were positive, the ministry said.
Israel began a month-long lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but that also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system.
On Thursday the cabinet decided to reopen schools for grades 1-4 on Sunday. Schools have been closed since September 18, but preschools and daycares were allowed to reopen on October 18.
On Thursday Netanyahu again rebuffed persistent criticism of his handling of the crisis, and defended the government’s decision to apply the lockdown, saying the measure had saved lives.
In a televised statement delivered before the coronavirus cabinet reconvened to discuss further easing the lockdown measures, he declined to comment on his position regarding the reopening of street stores.
But the prime minister vowed that he would reapply local lockdowns in cities that have high infection rates.
“I will not hesitate to suggest to the cabinet to shut down such a city,” he said. “To cordon it off. No matter what segment of the population it is.”
Netanyahu had previously backed off imposing local lockdowns in ultra-Orthodox cities following pushback from the community’s politicians, whose support he relies on in order to maintain his rule.
The Health Ministry on Thursday added Italy, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania and Serbia to the list of countries with high coronavirus infections from which travelers returning to Israel must quarantine for 14 days. Vietnam was added to a separate list of “green countries” where infections are low and from which travelers can enter Israel without quarantine.
The Defense Ministry on Sunday announced that the first human trials of its coronavirus vaccine will begin on November 1 and continue through the spring before it can receive approval for full use.