Gamzu warns against opening schools in 'red' cities

Ministers okay virus czar’s pandemic plan, but block it from applying to schools

‘Traffic light’ proposal bases extent of restrictions on infection rate in respective locale, but education officials say schools will open everywhere, including in hot zones

First grade students and their parents ahead of the opening of the school year at a school in Efrat on August 30, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
First grade students and their parents ahead of the opening of the school year at a school in Efrat on August 30, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Government ministers unanimously approved virus czar Ronni Gamzu’s plan to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic by dealing with cities based on their morbidity rates on Sunday evening, after several previous attempts to okay the scheme came up short.

The plan, known by the moniker, “traffic light,” is meant to differentiate between locales based on their respective coronavirus infection rates, with “red” localities subject to the strictest restrictions followed by “orange,” “yellow,” and “green” ones, with the latter enjoying the loosest rules regarding crowds in outdoor and indoor spaces.

The plan will only go into effect on September 6 and not at the beginning of the month as Gamzu had hoped, according to a joint statement from the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office.

While Gamzu, according to Channel 12, had pushed to have the schools included in the plan, with those institutions in locales with high infection rates forced to shutter (or delay opening), ministers immediately rejected the idea, a sign of lingering tensions between Gamzu and the government.

“The data regarding red towns is irrelevant to schools. They are an island of stability,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant told Gamzu during the coronavirus cabinet meeting, according to Channel 12 news.

Then deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman, left, shakes hands with Ronni Gamzu during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Gamzu responded by saying that if ministers really wanted to dig their heels regarding the issue, they would have to take on the responsibility if it backfires.

“My position has not changed. Opening the schools in ‘red’ cities will bring about a spike in infections in those cities and others,” Gamzu reportedly told the ministers. “I will continue to fight this.”

Officials have expressed some fears over the looming opening of schools on September 1, seeing it as a potential major infection vector. Israel’s swift reopening of schools in May was seen as a major factor in the marked resurgence of the disease after the country had nearly eradicated it via strict lockdowns over the preceding months.

Officials in the Education Ministry told the Walla news site that all schools would open on Tuesday for the start of the year, including those in red towns.

According to the traffic light plan, published for the first time by the Health Ministry on Sunday night, each locale will be given a score between 0 and 10, every two weeks.

That number will be calculated based on several factors, including the number of new cases per 10,000 residents, the rate of positive tests in each town per week, and the rate of increase in the number of new patients in each town per week.

Towns that receive an average score of 7.5 or higher will be defined as “red;” towns that receive a score between 6 and 7.5 will be designated as “orange;” towns that receive scores between 5 and 6 will be designated as “yellow;” and towns below a score of 4.5 will be marked as “green.”

An inter-ministerial team will be able to grant a unique classification for a particular neighborhood, based on accurate morbidity data, if that specific area is notably unique from its surroundings in terms of morbidity data.

In red towns, outdoor gatherings will be capped at 20 people, while gatherings indoors will be limited to 10.

A technician carries out a diagnostic test for coronavirus in a lab at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv on August 3, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In orange areas, outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people will be allowed and 25 people will be permitted to gather indoors. At an open space belonging to a public or a private business in those locales, gatherings will be allowed to fill 40% of the space, while such indoor gatherings will be capped at 20% of the space.

In yellow towns, outdoor gatherings will be capped at 100 people, with outdoor spaces belonging to the public or businesses, gatherings will be allowed to fill 60% of those spaces. Indoor gatherings will be capped at 50 people and indoor buildings belonging to the public or a private business will be barred from filling up beyond 40% of their capacity.

In green areas, gatherings of up to 250 will be allowed outdoors and 100 will be allowed indoors. At an open space belonging to the public or a private business in those locales, gatherings will be allowed to fill 80% of the space, while such indoor gatherings will be capped at 60% of the space.

Special rules for synagogues over the High Holiday season will allow up to 1,000 people indoors, or one person for every four square meters in areas marked green. In red towns, 10 people will be allowed in a building of 240 square meters or more. If the building has two entrances, 20 people may be allowed in.

The scores for each municipality will be made public and will include all of the data used to reach the respective figures.

According to Channel 12, Gamzu told the ministers Sunday that his plan is meant to generate incentives for local authorities to keep their infection rates as low as possible. The virus czar reportedly plans to come up with separate restrictions for welfare bodies, the education system, public transport, national parks, cultural events, museums, shops, and restaurants in the coming weeks.

The Health Ministry raised the country’s coronavirus death toll to 919 Sunday evening, recording 13 new fatalities over the previous 24 hours.

Israelis wear protective face masks in Tel Aviv on August 25, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The total number of coronavirus cases since the pandemic began rose to 114,020, though the figure was likely stunted by an ongoing strike by technicians at publicly funded labs running coronavirus tests.

Of the 20,305 active cases, there were 444 people in serious condition, with 127 on ventilators. Another 190 people are in serious condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

Separately on Sunday, ministers agreed to extend the state of emergency currently in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Israel continuing to have one of the highest rates of new infections in the world.

A joint statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said ministers would now ask the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee to grant final approval to extending the state of emergency until November 7. The state of emergency was scheduled to expire on September 6.

Ministers also voted to expand the number of countries that one may visit without having to quarantine upon returning, adding the UAE, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, and others.

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