'This is likely the last opportunity for moderation'

Ministers ease weekend virus rules, back resumption of air travel

Coronavirus cabinet, supporting new czar Gamzu, decides to allow commerce on Fridays and Saturdays, aims to reopen skies by August 16, as lockdown averted — for now

Israelis wear protective face masks as they shop for food at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv on August 5, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)
Israelis wear protective face masks as they shop for food at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv on August 5, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASh90)

The government decided on Wednesday to cancel weekend closures on shopping centers, stores and markets that were implemented to stymie the spread of the coronavirus, after establishing that the rules don’t drive down COVID-19 infection rates.

The so-called coronavirus cabinet announced the move, which will take effect this weekend, after an hours-long meeting, which also saw ministers agree to work to resume air travel in 11 days, and lift restrictions on recreational activities in public parks.

But the official tasked with handling the virus response warned the country could yet see a nationwide lockdown in two weeks’ time if infection rates — currently holding at around 2,000 daily — don’t drop.

“No country in the world with a high rate of infection like Israel’s is handling the crisis without a lockdown. The Israeli government is sensitive to the delicate socio-economic situation and public hardships and gave me trust in a way that does not include a full closure,” coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

A flight attendant of Israir Airlines wearing full PPE (personal protective equipment) prepares for takeoff from the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv to the southern resort city of Eilat during the COVID-19 pandemic, on June 16, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

“This is likely the last opportunity for moderation. If morbidity does not decrease within two weeks we will be forced to consider restrictions including the possibility of local or national lockdowns,” Gamzu said.

In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the government will begin implementing the color-coded coronavirus system, under which cities and towns will have coronavirus policies adapted to their local rates of infection, by September 1.

Gamzu has also set September 1 as a target date for a “significant” decrease in daily cases, the statement said.

The statement said Netanyahu supported Gamzu’s plans with unanimous backing from the coronavirus cabinet. Prior to the meeting, Gamzu had expressed support for easing restrictions, while Netanyahu wanted to take a harsher approach to contain the virus.

Ronni Gamzu attends a Finance Committee meeting in the Knesset, April 23, 2014. (Flash90)

The government body will also advance an outline for reopening Israel’s skies to air traffic in the next two weeks with a goal of allowing flights again on August 16. The announcement signals that border entry requirements will be relaxed for non-Israelis, who have been barred from the country for months.

The plan will be put together by Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

Flights to and from Israel have been severely curtailed since the start of the outbreak earlier this year. The most recent round of restrictions on commerce was put in place three weeks ago.

The coronavirus cabinet also decided to step up government involvement in combating the virus in “red” areas that are experiencing high rates of infection.

Following pressure from Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper, ministers also agreed to allow cultural events in outdoor areas in cities with low rates of infection, flagged as “green.”

Restrictions on playgrounds will also be lifted.

The new measures will be approved by the Knesset on Thursday, the PMO said.

Earlier Wednesday, reports said Netanyahu had reached out to associates of Gamzu to press him to adopt the premier’s own preference for lockdowns and other far-reaching restrictions to contain the coronavirus.

According to an unsourced report from Channel 12, Netanyahu was concerned Gamzu’s stance on pandemic policy could lead to apathy among the public and was therefore seeking to pressure him to support stricter limitations.

Since taking up his post, Gamzu has pledged to end “illogical” restrictions and expressed opposition to lockdown measures, warning of their health, economic and social costs.

“A full closure, from my point of view, is not an option. We need to go to targeted restrictions in hotspots only, and lift restrictions where possible,” Gamzu told the ministers ahead of the meeting, according to Hebrew reports. “A general lockdown is a last resort. The sick people are not in a situation where they’re lacking care. A lockdown will create enormous economic and social hardships,” Gamzu said.

In this photo from the Health Ministry, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (C) visits patients inside the coronavirus ward at Yitzhak Shamir Medical Center in Tzrifin on July 23, 2020. (Health Ministry)

Channel 12 also reported Wednesday that Netanyahu has reached out to former finance minister Moshe Kahlon to offer him the position of overseeing the economic aspects of Israel’s response to the virus. Kahlon would work alongside Gamzu, the report said.

Quoting an unnamed source familiar with Netanyahu’s proposal to Kahlon, the Channel 12 report said the prime minister’s offer is an effective vote of no confidence in Finance Minister Israel Katz, and could be an attempt to soothe public anger over the government’s economic handling of the crisis.

Both Kahlon and the Prime Minister’s Office denied the report, Channel 12 said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in Jerusalem on March 11, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Gamzu, a former Health Ministry chief, has sought to do away with what he describes as unreasonable restrictions, which have angered the business community. Currently, few curbs on businesses remain in place on weekdays, with only event halls and large cultural venues shut. Lawmakers in the Knesset’s Coronavirus Committee, who have overturned several cabinet decisions to impose new regulations, have vowed to reopen those as well.

Jerusalem residents, wearing face masks for fear of the coronavirus, walk on Jaffa Road in the city center of Jerusalem, August 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Health Ministry Director Chezy Levy said ministers could still discuss a partial or complete lockdown. “Lockdown is a tool that can reduce morbidity; on the other hand the price we’ll pay for a complete lockdown is clear to all of us,” he told Army Radio.

New Health Ministry figures released Wednesday night showed 1,770 new infections over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of infections since the pandemic began to 77,595.

The ministry reported another death from COVID-19, raising the national toll to 565.

Of the 25,649 active cases, 345 people were in serious condition, with 106 on ventilators. Another 136 people were in moderate condition and the rest have mild or no symptoms.

The Health Ministry said 26,071 tests were performed on Tuesday.

Israel has struggled in recent months to contain the outbreak, confirming close to 2,000 new infections a day.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry announced that 15 people died on Monday, the highest single-day toll yet.

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