Ministers said to agree on extending lockdown, split on timeline

Netanyahu warns infection rates still above target, wants restrictions to remain in place until Monday; Gantz says only until Friday; decisions to be made Thursday

Police at a roadblock in central Tel Aviv as they enforce a nationwide lockdown, October 13, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Police at a roadblock in central Tel Aviv as they enforce a nationwide lockdown, October 13, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Ministers meeting Tuesday to discuss the exit strategy from the ongoing national lockdown agreed restrictions should be kept in place for several more days, though opinions differed on how much longer the country should be kept under closure, according to Hebrew media reports.

Before the meeting started, a decision was made that ministers would only vote on whether to reopen preschools and small businesses — the first phase of easing the lockdown — at another meeting scheduled for Thursday, when more data on infection rates would be available, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

As the meeting got underway, after hours of delays, leaked details of the debate were reported by Hebrew media.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz proposed extending the lockdown rules until Friday, but no later, the Ynet website reported.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks to IDF Home Front Command soldiers in the Southern city of Ashdod, September 14, 2020. (FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was said to be in favor of continuing the lockdown until Monday, warned that if it is lifted too soon “there will be outbreaks and [earlier] decisions [to apply the lockdown] will go down the drain.”

Netanyahu argued that the number of new infections has still not dropped to a target of just 2,000 cases each day.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat reportedly recommended that ministers extend the lockdown until Monday, arguing that morbidity rates are not expected to dip to a level meriting reopening the economy before then.

The adviser cautioned that the impact of last week’s Sukkot holiday, which saw numerous public gatherings for celebrations in violation of lockdown rules, has still not been felt, Army Radio reported.

Closed shops in the Mamilla promenade, Jerusalem on October 13, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ben-Shabbat also backed a proposal to apply night curfews in high infection areas to prevent people from gathering for anything except work.

Meanwhile, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu recommended that the current terms of the lockdown remain in effect in cities with high infection rates, even after the closure is eased in the rest of the country, according to leaks from the meeting.

Gamzu listed a series of towns that would qualify as “red” under Health Ministry criteria, most of which have a sizeable ultra-Orthodox population.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu at the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The meeting also looked at easing specific aspects of the lockdown, including allowing couples who are getting married to go beyond a current travel limit of one kilometer from their homes, which severely limits the possibility of holding a ceremony.

Ministers reviewed reopening the education system for pre-schoolers and allowing restaurants to offer takeout service. Restaurants can currently only offer deliveries.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev reportedly argued in favor of lifting air travel restrictions, while Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit opposed it.

“The disagreement is over solidarity. Can you allow people to travel abroad when most Israelis are kept within 1,000 meters [of their homes]?” Mandelblit was quoted saying, adding that it could lead to “legal problems.”

The meeting began almost two-and-half hours late after Netanyahu reportedly sought to have it postponed until Thursday, saying the recent infection data is not yet sufficiently conclusive.

Gantz, however, insisted that it be held.

At 3 p.m., as the ministers were set to meet, a message was sent out saying that the meeting had been delayed for “consultations.” Following some confusion on when the meeting would be held, the cabinet secretary informed ministers it was rescheduled for 5:15 p.m.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in the Knesset plenum, October 12, 2020. (Yaniv Nadav/Knesset spokesperson’s office)

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that after consultations between Netanyahu, Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Science and Technology Minister Itzhar Shay it was decided the meeting would go ahead “to discuss the morbidity data and a systematic exit strategy defined by stages and criteria.”

“In keeping with the data and the infection trends, on Thursday the cabinet will discuss whether to carry out a pilot move next week that will open small businesses that do not receive customers, along with [restaurant] pickups and preschools,” the statement said.

The lockdown, which began on September 19, is set to expire utomatically on Wednesday if there is not a government decision to extend it.

The Health Ministry has a phased exit plan that would see the country gradually return to normal activity, starting with increased freedom of movement and eventually reopening daycares, schools, synagogues, malls and other venues. The scheme would only kick into gear when the national daily tally dips below 2,000 cases and the person-to-person spread is slowed.

Health Ministry figures released Tuesday showed that there were 3,112 new cases diagnosed the day before, a wide margin above the 2,000-a-day target, but significantly lower than the over 8,000 cases a day that were seen before the lockdown started.

The Health Ministry plan has faced criticism from members of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, other lawmakers, and bureaucrats who have urged a swifter end to restrictions and for the reopening of schools.

Schools were shuttered last month as part of the nationwide lockdown. Cabinet ministers are facing growing pressure to reopen classes soon, with many Israelis unable to work because they have to watch their young children.

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