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Ministers delay vote on easing virus rules, infuriating business owners

Final approval for reopening restaurants, other businesses on Sunday pushed back until Saturday night; outbreak declines in ultra-Orthodox community but climbs in Arab areas

Worker puts up a poster advertising for staff at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Worker puts up a poster advertising for staff at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A final vote on further lifting coronavirus restrictions was delayed on Friday, infuriating restaurant owners, who were awaiting approval for reopening on Sunday as Israel prepares to take its next step out of its third nationwide lockdown.

The move to further ease restrictions needs a third vote of approval from the coronavirus cabinet, which was rescheduled for Saturday night.

Besides reopening restaurants, the next stage out of lockdown includes reopening some schools, cafes, event venues, attractions and hotels — with some of the activities available only to those with Green Passes signaling they are immunized against the virus.

The postponed vote was reportedly caused by a delay in writing the regulations by legal advisers.

Health care workers take coronavirus test samples of Israelis in a drive-through complex in northern Israel, March 4, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The holdup frustrated some business owners who need to carry out lengthy preparations before reopening.

Oleg Bartov, who owns a bar in central Israel, told the Ynet news site that he began preparations for reopening on Tuesday.

“I brought in a cleaning crew after the place was closed for over half a year. I ordered supplies, beer, meat, vegetables, and I’m ready to open the place within 15 minutes,” he said.

“I’m ready for dozens of customers per evening, and if they decide in the end to not open, after the financial damage caused in the past year, I’ll lose thousands more shekels,” he said.

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection at a mobile vaccine station on the beach in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Heightening anxiety for business owners, the Israel Restaurants Association warned that the government outline for the reopening was being changed at the last minute.

One association representative told Ynet that the government was discussing requiring more space between tables, and limiting capacity more than was previously planned.

Channel 12 reported on Friday that only around 6,000 restaurants were set to reopen on Sunday, out of over 14,000 that operated before the pandemic. Around 4,000 restaurants have closed for good, the report said.

A closed restaurant on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, during a nationwide lockdown (January 06, 2021. Photo by Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel in February began easing restrictions following a third lockdown, and has since gradually re-opened shopping malls, gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities.

The Health Ministry in February launched the long-awaited “Green Pass” certificate enabling those vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus to take part in various activities.

New coronavirus deaths and infections in Israel have continued to decline from highs in January, and the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients has dropped to its lowest point since last year.

Vaccinations are lagging in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations, however, and infections have been higher in those groups.

Channel 13 reported on Friday that infections in the ultra-Orthodox community have declined recently, while cases in some Arab communities have spiked.

People walk on Jaffa street in downtown Jerusalem on March 1, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute, some 87% of all Israelis aged 16 and up who aren’t ultra-Orthodox or Arab have either recovered from COVID-19 or received at least one vaccine dose.

The equivalent figure for the ultra-Orthodox community was 72%, while the lowest immunization rate, 64%, has been observed among Arab Israelis.

Most Arab-majority cities are designated as “red” areas with high infection rates. In the Arab city of Umm al Fahm, the weekly infection rate has climbed by 45% and the test positivity rate is 18%, the report said.

The majority of ultra-Orthodox communities are now deemed “orange” zones with a lower infection rate than red areas, Channel 13 reported. In the city of Beitar Illit, weekly infections dropped 33%, in Modiin Illit, 15%, and Elad, 28%.

Despite the overall decline in severity of Israel’s third-wave outbreak, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Friday that Israel could yet be forced to enter a fourth lockdown to combat the spread of the virus as the infection rate inched back up.

Health Ministry figures showed the virus’s basic reproduction number, or R-number, was at 1.01 Friday morning, meaning the overall number of cases was growing slowly. The R-number had been below 1 since late January.

However, coronavirus testing also showed its lowest positivity rate in months, with some 3,600 tests coming back positive Thursday out of 92,000 tests — or some 4 percent.

People wearing face masks take cover from rain as they walk on Jaffa Road in the city center of Jerusalem, on March 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Serious cases also remained at their lowest number since December, with 690 patients.

Netanyahu claimed Thursday that Israel was largely done with the coronavirus, saying that it was the first country in the world to put the pandemic behind it, thanks to its quick and efficient vaccination campaign.

However, unnamed health officials told the Maariv newspaper that there were concerns the reopening plan was being influenced by Netanyahu’s political considerations ahead of the March 23 elections.

According to ministry figures, there were 3,630 new cases diagnosed on Thursday, bringing the tally since the start of the pandemic to 796,465 including 39,970 active cases.

Of them, 690 were in serious condition, including 267 classified as critical, and 218 on ventilators.

The death toll rose to 5,834.

Additionally, 4,903,857 Israelis have received the first vaccine dose, and 3,660,333 have also received the second. Several million Israelis are ineligible for the vaccine, most of them under the age of 16.

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