As cases plunge, gov’t may ease rules in virus hotspots, all said to be Haredi

List of ‘red’ areas said to comprise 5 ultra-Orthodox cities and towns, 3 Jerusalem neighborhoods; virus czar says sharp decline in infections is ‘real,’ including among Haredim

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Ministers met Friday afternoon to discuss which virus hotspots should remain under full lockdown next week, as the coronavirus czar indicated just a handful of cities and towns have high enough concentrations of infection to justify maintaining the stringent measures. Reports indicated that even the worst-hit areas would likely be allowed to emerge from lockdown by the end of next week if contagion rates do not rise in the interim.

The meeting comes a day after the government decided to lift some restrictions around the country after a month-long lockdown successfully drove down infection rates, including striking the one-kilometer limit on travel and reopening daycares, preschools and kindergartens.

The government had previously signaled that the dwindling number of hotspots — all of them now said to be ultra-Orthodox communities that have seen huge numbers of COVID infections — would remain under tight restrictions until the virus waned in those areas. In an about-face, reports Friday said the ministerial panel that declares “restricted zones” was leaning toward minimizing the number of locales that would see the health rules extended.

At stake in Friday’s meeting is whether schools for children under the age of six should open Sunday in so-called “red” areas and whether residents of those areas should be permitted to leave the city limits for work.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews praying in the town of Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The cities that have been flagged as red are exclusively ultra-Orthodox-majority: Bnei Brak, Elad, Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Rechasim and several Jerusalem neighborhoods — Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna and Kiryat Mattesdorf, according to Hebrew media reports.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen a disproportionately high number of virus cases. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were coming from the ultra-Orthodox, though they constitute only approximately 12% of the population.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu recommended removing Beit Shemesh and Kiryat Malachi from the list of “red” zones after infection rates improved there, reports said. His traffic light ranking system calculates local rates of infection based on the number of actual cases, the rate at which cases double, and percentage of tests that return positive on a week-by-week basis.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu visits the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“What happened in the past two weeks is a true revolution in reducing the virus rates and this is despite the concerns and the challenges,” Gamzu told the Ynet news site on Friday.

The rapid rate of declining cases “surprised us, too,” he continued. “The decline is real and does not stem from an unwillingness to get tested. We are seeing it decline in the number of positive cases, including in Jerusalem.”

That was a reference to speculation that some ultra-Orthodox communities may be avoiding testing in a bid to attain so-called “herd immunity.”

Gamzu is expected to recommend that the lockdown in the red areas remain in force until Wednesday night.

Gamzu was hit with criticism on Friday over his position from both ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and a dovish minister who warned of a hasty exit from lockdown will drive up infection rates.

“Ronni Gamzu doesn’t make decisions based on the number of sick people, but rather only if they’re Haredi,” said United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, accusing the coronavirus czar of “doing calculations in his head in the dead of the night about how to put the Haredim in lockdown.”

Chairman of the Degel HaTorah party Moshe Gafni, at the opening event of their election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I urge the prime minister to stop the activities of this man, immediately,” added Gafni.

Ultra-Orthodox parties are close allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hold sway in the government.

Welfare Minister Itzhik Shmuli urged the government to keep highly infected areas under lockdown, warning: “The only way to manage the coronavirus routine without a third lockdown depends on making decisions on the basis of epidemiological rates in the exit stages laid out by the experts.”

He said the government must not seek shortcuts or have a “double standard” and ease the rules on hotspots too quickly.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein backed up Gamzu on Friday, with a statement from his office saying he supports his expert opinion.

The decisions to lift some restrictions come a week after the Sukkot and Simhat Torah holidays, prompting concerns an outbreak in ultra-Orthodox areas, where gatherings were common and numerous violations were recorded, may not yet be reflected in the official data.

According to the Health Ministry, 1,608 new cases were diagnosed on Thursday, while the percentage of tests returning positive dipped to 4.5 percent, the lowest rate since mid-July. It said 37,487 tests were conducted Thursday.

Over 300,000 virus cases have been diagnosed since the start of the pandemic, 38,355 of which are active. According to the ministry, 713 people are in serious condition, 247 of whom are on ventilators. Another 219 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. Overall, 1,259 are hospitalized with the disease.

The death toll climbed to 2,128 on Friday morning, with seven more deaths recorded since Thursday night.

People walk past a billboard posted by the Health Ministry instructing people to wear face masks, in Jerusalem on October 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The latest figures matched the government’s goal of reaching under 2,000 daily cases to ease some lockdown restrictions on Sunday.

Ministers agreed on Thursday to lift the limit on Israelis traveling more than one kilometer from home unless for specific permitted purposes; allow them to visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors); reopen preschools and daycares; allow restaurants to serve takeout; permit businesses that don’t receive customers to open; allow Israelis to visit beaches and national parks; and reopen the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound for worship under certain restrictions.

According to multiple media reports, the government has also agreed on a plan to reopen ultra-Orthodox yeshivas next week according to the previously implemented “capsule” program.

Restrictions on flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport were lifted on Thursday night, as per a government decision Wednesday.

Former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barabash, a frequent media commentator during the pandemic, on Friday criticized the decision to begin emerging from the lockdown next week.

“They shouldn’t have set the threshold to exit the lockdown at 2,000 cases a day. They should have put it far lower at dozens or between 100 and 200, because it’s much easier to control,” Barabash told 103FM Radio.

He said reopening the education system under the current conditions was “very dangerous.” It would have been better “to wait another week” before starting to reopen, Barabash said.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at the Gur Imrei Emes yeshiva in Bnei Brak, June 16, 2020 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the plan to lift some rules on Sunday won’t be implemented if cases rise beyond 2,000 daily or if the basic reproduction number (measuring transmission of the disease) is higher than 0.8%.

Children at a kindergarten in Jerusalem after a two-month coronavirus lockdown, May 10, 2020. (Yonatan SIndel/Flash90)

Ahead of the reopening of educational institutions for children under the age of six, the government on Friday urged preschool and kindergarten teachers to go get tested for the virus, to “ensure a safe return [to school] for the children and staff.”

State-subsidized daycares on Thursday said they would not be ready to reopen on Sunday.

The first phase of reopening after a month-long nationwide closure is part of a Health Ministry plan for a gradual, several-month exit based on epidemiological benchmarks.

Israel has been under a national lockdown for the past month to contain a raging second wave of the pandemic, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. Recent days have seen both the number of daily cases and the percentage of positive tests go down amid the sweeping restrictions on the public. The death toll is rising, however, crossing 2,000 on Sunday — just five weeks after it passed 1,000.

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