Lights out: Ministers okay nightly curfew on Hanukkah to drive down virus cases

Policy to be implemented from Wednesday, remain in force until January 2; coronavirus czar skeptical it’ll be effective

Israeli donuts sold at the Roladin bakery ahead of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, outside the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on December 7, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli donuts sold at the Roladin bakery ahead of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, outside the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on December 7, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ministers on Monday voted to impose a nightly curfew during the Hanukkah holiday and through January 2, as virus cases continued to climb around the country.

The three-week curfew will begin on Wednesday, a day before the holiday.

The coronavirus cabinet convened on Monday afternoon to debate a plan to drive down infections, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowing that “correct, determined, non-populist” decisions would be made.

The meeting came amid a resurgence of the virus and ahead of the eight days of Hanukkah, when health officials are concerned that gatherings will contribute to the virus’s spread.

Ministers in the coronavirus cabinet also agreed to allow malls and open-air markets to remain open for the time being.

The curfew would begin in the evening, around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. and end in the early morning, around 5 a.m or 6 a.m, according to Channel 12. Israelis would be prevented from venturing beyond a certain distance from their homes during those times, the network said.

If infection rates do not drop by December 20, and the daily cases climb to 3,500, the NSC also suggested tightening restrictions considerably, closing stores and other businesses that accept customers. Should the cases continue to rise, topping 4,500 per day by January 2, Israel would enter its third nationwide lockdown under the plan, according to Hebrew media reports.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash was hesitant to impose a nightly curfew, saying that such a move is unlikely to have much of an immediate effect.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash, seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on November 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We cannot know if a nightly curfew will be effective. It only delays the inevitable. To approve the NSC plan is like declaring we’ll enter a full lockdown on January 2,” Ash was quoted by the Walla news site as saying.

Ministers were reportedly split on the plan, with Likud’s Finance Minister Israel Katz and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz backing it, while Blue and White’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi called it “problematic,” and Social Equality Minister Meirav Cohen, also of Blue and White, argued that it was unenforceable.

Israel imposed its second nationwide lockdown in mid-September over the High Holidays, and it remained fully in place until mid-October, when the government began to gradually lift the rules. It has yet to lift all of the restrictions imposed at that time.

Earlier on Monday, speaking at his weekly Likud faction meeting, Netanyahu warned that “with the end in sight, if we don’t act correctly, people will fall ill and die.” He said ministers would make “correct, determined, non-populist decisions” to drive down infections until the vaccines arrive, without elaborating on the proposed measures.

Netanyahu also underlined the need to prevent crowding and to keep social distancing and hygiene measures until Israelis are vaccinated.

At his own Blue and White faction meeting, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the country does not yet have “a vaccine campaign” and is in “a battle for human lives that will continue and not end soon.”

Healthcare workers take test samples from Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Lod, on December 1, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

New cases of the coronavirus have nearly doubled in two weeks, Health Ministry data showed Monday morning. The figures showed that the average number of daily new cases over the past week had grown to 1,318 on Monday, up from 750 new cases a day recorded on November 22. The figures are based on a seven-day average.

That figure is the highest since mid-October, when Israel was emerging from the second wave of the pandemic, the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center said in a report Monday.

The report also flagged the rising number of patients being hospitalized in serious condition. The Health Ministry said there were 332 patients in serious condition Monday evening, up from 260 a week ago. Of them, 89 patients are on ventilators.

The death toll rose by seven since Monday morning, and reached 2,924.

The ministry said 1,352 new COVID-19 patients were diagnosed Sunday, with 3.2 percent of the 42,040 tests coming back positive. The positivity rate tends to be higher over the weekend, when testing plummets. The average positivity rate over the last seven days has been 2.6%, according to the center.

The total number of confirmed cases in the country since the pandemic began is 346,490, including 13,393 active cases.

The taskforce recommended reimposing some restrictions that have been eased, “to stop the rise in infections and preventing the outbreak from spiraling out of control.”

Officials estimate that every two days without restrictions being reimposed will require one day of full lockdown down the road.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein visit the Teva Pharmaceuticals’ logistics center in Shoham, where coronavirus vaccines are set to be stored and distributed, November 26, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned Sunday evening that the country was in danger of entering a third lockdown if action is not taken within days to curb the outbreak.

Most parts of the economy have been reopened and the school system returned to full attendance on Sunday, more than three months after Israel entered its second national lockdown to stem runaway morbidity rates in September.

A meeting of the coronavirus cabinet on Sunday night ended without major decisions.

Ash, the top official charged with battling the virus, presented a grim projection during the Sunday meeting, saying that at the current rate, new daily cases will grow from 1,500 to about 7,400 in just three weeks. That would mean a wave of infections similar in its severity to the country’s second wave between August and October.

Ash had presented two alternatives, both of which would significantly reimpose restrictions that have been lifted.

The first would close all businesses that receive customers in person, including street stores, malls and markets, as well as schools in medium- and high-infection areas. Public transportation would be reduced by 50%.

The second plan would include all that and also close all schools nationwide, alongside travel restrictions.

Students arrive at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

According to various news outlets, the Health Ministry has recommended that Israel shut down all nonessential stores, just weeks after they were gradually reopened, and close all schools in medium- and high-infection areas.

Reports indicated that the ministry was also attempting to reimpose quarantine restrictions for arrivals from all countries, including those deemed low-infection areas.

Speaking with Army Radio on Monday, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said that while the outbreak was initially concentrated mainly in the Arab community, it has now spread to all parts of Israeli society.

“This is a phenomenon that can accelerate in a very short time,” he said, arguing against further reopening the economy. “We want to implement preventative measures now that will be lighter, rather than after the horse has left the barn.”

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