Ministers extend lockdown beyond holiday as over 7,000 new infections recorded

Nationwide closure to now expire on October 14 –three days later than earlier plan; government also okays NIS 500 fine for anyone caught in someone else’s sukkah during festival

Jews build a sukka for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, in the northern city of Safed, September 29, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Jews build a sukka for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, in the northern city of Safed, September 29, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Government ministers on Wednesday voted to extend the ongoing coronavirus lockdown by three days, and to clamp down on protests and sukkah visiting, as over 7,000 new infections were confirmed during the day.

The lockdown, which was supposed to end on October 11, will now remain in force until October 14, according to Hebrew media reports.

The current national lockdown, Israel’s second since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, began on September 18 and was significantly tightened last Friday.

Ministers also approved fining anyone caught in a sukkah not their own NIS 500.

Sukkot, during which many Jews spend time in huts known as sukkahs, begins on Friday evening and lasts until October 9. The ban on visiting another person’s sukkah will remain in force for two more days after the festival ends, the Ynet news site said.

It was not immediately clear if the owner of the sukkah will also be fined, or how the rule will affect communal sukkahs, which are sometimes used in high-density areas.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews buy palm branches for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on September 30, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Additionally, ministers approved controversial new emergency regulations barring Israelis from traveling over one kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes to attend a protest and limiting outdoor gatherings to a maximum of 20 people per group.

The regulations, approved as part of a law passed by the Knesset early Wednesday, effectively stifle the large weekly demonstrations at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.

The emergency measures are set to come before the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Thursday for final approval.

There was no immediate confirmation from the government of the new restrictions or decision to extend the lockdown.

According to Health Ministry statistics released shortly after 10 p.m. on Wednesday, 7,040 new coronavirus cases were recorded since midnight, raising the number of infections since the pandemic began to 245,494.

The figure was the highest number of cases confirmed in a day since last Thursday, after testing levels fell off over the weekend and Yom Kippur.

The death toll stood at 1,569, with 22 more fatalities since midnight.

Of the 69,418 active cases, the number of people in serious condition climbed to 834, with 211 on ventilators. Another 256 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The Health Ministry said 52,282 tests were performed Tuesday, 13.5 percent of which came back positive.

A hospital worker at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem takes a swab from a man to test for coronavirus on September 30, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

With the number of people requiring hospitalization for COVID-19 continuing to climb, heads of internal medicine departments at Israeli medical centers warned they were having difficulty treating other patients without COVID-19.

“Out of 111 internal [medicine] departments at hospitals, already more than 40% have been turned into coronavirus wards,” Avishai Ellis, head of the Internal Medicine Association, was quoted saying at a press conference by Channel 12 news.

Other medical officials said more health workers were needed to deal with the influx of patients, while others called for more hospital beds.

“We need to create more places and more free beds for additional coronavirus patients,” Dr. Guy Hoshen of Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital said. “We’re releasing patients in serious condition according to the Health Ministry’s criteria who still need oxygen.”

During a meeting Wednesday of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the Health Ministry to prepare the healthcare system to handle as many as 5,000 seriously ill coronavirus patients at a time, over six times what is estimated to be the current maximum capacity of the country’s hospitals.

The figure suggested there is no clear sign that the steep rise in the infection rate is slowing or reversing.

The prime minister said he wants hospitals prepared to treat up to 1,500 seriously ill patients immediately, 3,200 by mid-October and 5,000 by November, according to Channel 12.

While health officials have for months cited 800 seriously ill coronavirus patients as the maximum the healthcare system can handle, hospitals have been steadily expanding their coronavirus wards and training staff to prepare for higher numbers.

Netanyahu also warned ministers on Wednesday that the current coronavirus lockdown — which has drastically limited public life and shuttered the education system along with many businesses, and will limit the right to protest — may last months or even up to a year.

The coronavirus cabinet met to discuss setting goals and indicators for a gradual emergence from Israel’s second national lockdown, as well as progress on vaccines and the purchase and use of rapid COVID-19 tests. The meeting came as the health situation grew increasingly dire, with thousands of new cases reported each day, overwhelming hospitals, and COVID-19 deaths steadily climbing.

In leaks from the meeting, Netanyahu was quoted in Hebrew media telling the special forum of relevant ministers dealing with the ongoing outbreak that “our exit strategy [from the lockdown] will be slow this time, and could take place over half a year or a year.”

The government has been criticized for a too-quick lifting of restrictions after the initial lockdown in the spring, and for failing to reimpose restrictions when infection rates started to rise over the summer.

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