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Ministers mull nightly curfews, local lockdowns to stem COVID-19 spread

Coronavirus cabinet meeting ends without decisions; virus czar to present detailed proposal on Wednesday

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

Senior ministers on Monday discussed the possibility of localized lockdowns and curfews during nights and weekends to stem the spread of COVID-19, but ended a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet without making new decisions on tackling the pandemic.

The meeting saw ministers discuss various ways to drive down infection rates, ranging from encouraging mask-wearing to a full national closure, “which we are trying to avoid,” according to a statement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office.

“The other options are three different kinds of closures: local closures in ‘red’ cities [with high rates of infection] — and there are such cities,” Netanyahu said.

“The second thing we’re discussing is nightly closures, meaning limiting activities from a certain hour until the morning. The third option is weekend closures,” he continued, saying ministers may opt to back some or all of the measures.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on July 27, 2020. (Tal Shahar/Pool/AFP)

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu will build a detailed plan by Wednesday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, at which time the ministers will vote on a final decision, according to the statement.

Gamzu has backed ending all weekend restrictions on businesses and parks, according to Hebrew media reports. The official, who was appointed to the position late last month, has promised to end “illogical” government restrictions.

Netanyahu said earlier Monday the growth rate in new coronavirus cases appeared to have leveled off, but cautioned it could pick up again and that there could be a jump in deaths from COVID-19.

Speaking at the start of the meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, he noted that Israel now has one of the highest morbidity rates per capita in the world. According to an Oxford University-based scientific publication, Israel currently has the eighth highest infection rate per capita.

“This is the bad news. The good news is that over the last two weeks or so we’ve been on a plateau,” he was quoted as saying in a statement from his office.

Medical team member at the Barzilay hospital in Ashkelon handles a coronavirus test sample on March 29, 2020 (Flash90)

The comments came after a weekend that saw dramatic slowdown in both testing and new infections, though the number of patients in serious condition and fatalities continued to climb.

As of Monday morning, there were 334 patients in serious condition, 100 of whom were on a ventilator.

Netanyahu said the increase in serious cases was not yet posing a challenge to the health care system, though he warned infections could yet rise “to numbers we won’t be able to handle.”

He also sounded the alarm about rising deaths from the virus.

“[The number of deaths] is going up in the State of Israel and it can rise to large numbers,” the premier said.

Medical personal at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan are seen in the hospital’s coronavirus ward on June 30, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Netanyahu said that his government was committed to “disrupting the chain of infection,” referring to largely ineffective contact tracing programs managed so far. But he said it was difficult to carry out epidemiological studies in light of the elevated number of new cases.

One of Gamzu’s main tasks heading up the pandemic response is to improve the  contact tracing program, and he has moved much of the effort from the Health Ministry to the Defense Ministry.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Monday that the military was working to set up a command center for contact tracing that would soon be operative. “[The center] can begin working over the weekend or at the start of next week, no later than that,” he said, according to a statement from his office.

Netanyahu’s comments underlined what appears to be a shift in policy since the appointment of Gamzu, who has promised to minimize restrictions on economic activity and movement while finding other ways to curb the pandemic. Netanyahu, who had earlier won plaudits for imposing strict restrictions, has since seen efforts to pass new rules upended by Knesset lawmakers backed by protesting business owners and others, who prefer less stringent shackles on business activity.

“In addition to building our capability to disrupt the infection chain, we must lower the number of [COVID-19] patients,” Netanyahu said.

A man wearing a face mask bikes past shops in Jerusalem’s Old City on August 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel had largely succeeded in containing the spread of the virus during the initial outbreak, with the number of new daily cases dropping to the low dozens by May. However, following the rollback of most restrictions, there was a surge in infections, with recent weeks seeing around 2,000 new cases per day.

The last few days, though, have seen a drop in the number of infections, which appeared linked to a steep decline in testing levels over the weekend.

On Sunday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said the number of cases was stabilizing.

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