A mere six days after the beginning of a tempered national lockdown, top ministers acknowledged Wednesday that the measure was insufficient amid burgeoning infections, and reportedly agreed to impose a full closure starting Friday that is expected to be more severe than Israel’s first closure in March.
The decision came at the end of long hours of deliberations in the so-called coronavirus cabinet that saw heated disagreements about which sectors of the economy should remain open, and on whether the right to protest should be preserved during the closure.
The full cabinet was convening Wednesday night to approve the decision ahead of Knesset legislation work to set it into law.
Israel’s virus death toll rose by seven Wednesday, to 1,325.
Channel 13 news reported that the government’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu was opposed to a full closure of workplaces, warning of the devastating effect the move would have on the economy. It was not immediately clear whether his recommendations would be accepted.
According to Channel 12 news, the new “hermetic” lockdown will see almost the entire economy shuttered except for vital stores such as supermarkets and pharmacies, as well as certain specially approved essential industries to be decided upon.
Demonstrations will be limited to within a kilometer of one’s home, and in groups of up to 20 — meaning an end to the mass protests regularly held against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Synagogues will close as of Friday. On Yom Kippur only, synagogues will be allowed to open in a limited capacity.
The nation’s main airport is also expected to close to outgoing flights.
The closure will last at least until the end of the Sukkot holiday on October 10.
According to Walla news, the decision-making was somewhat chaotic, and some members of the coronavirus cabinet were not consulted at all. The website said that during a break in the meetings, a telephone conversation took place between Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri.
At the end of the conversation, the news site reported, it was decided to skip the vote in the coronavirus cabinet and immediately move to a full cabinet vote.
The rest of the coronavirus cabinet members, including Finance Minister Israel Katz, were said to have only found out about the call and the decision from media reports.
Earlier Netanyahu said Israel was “heading for a full lockdown anyway,” as a result of soaring infection numbers, so it was better to impose it now rather than wait.
Netanyahu spoke in a statement to the media during a break in the deliberations of the coronavirus cabinet. He said the discussions were “serious, complex,” but that the decision made by the government would save lives. “The situation is difficult, there is a sharp rise [in cases],” he said. “The decisions are difficult, but as prime minister I must protect your lives.”
According to his office, Netanyahu told the coronavirus cabinet: “We are heading to a full lockdown anyway because of the infections, therefore it is preferred to do it over the [Jewish] holidays [of Yom Kippur and Sukkot], with a lower economic price, and not after the holidays with a high economic price.”
Shortly after he made the statement, Netanyahu spoke on the phone with Gantz, currently in Washington. The Blue and White party chief said he agreed with Netanyahu on the need for a full lockdown, according to Hebrew media reports. “It’s better now than in a month,” Gantz was quoted as saying.
This paved the way for the ministerial forum’s agreement.
Channel 13 reported that a full lockdown that would see most workplaces shuttered was opposed by Gamzu and the Health Ministry’s deputy director-general Itamar Grotto, who told ministers it was enough to cut down to 50 percent of staff at workplaces.
According to Walla news, Gamzu told the cabinet that in terms of reducing morbidity, a total closure would be “highly effective” but it would “destroy the economy.” Gamzu is said to have instead recommended a “smart closure” that would also take into account the damage to the economy.
Grotto reportedly told ministers, “There is no need for a complete closure right now, we can wait with the tightening of measures.”
Netanyahu was said to reply: “Why wait? In any case we will have to go to a total closure within a few days. If we wait until after Sukkot, the closure will cost us more money.”
Speaking to Channel 12 earlier, Transportation Minister Miri Regev confirmed Ben Gurion Airport would be closed if a full lockdown is imposed. She said that Israelis would be prevented from leaving the country if the full closure is confirmed, and that the government would seek to ensure plane tickets are refunded under those circumstances.
A Finance Ministry economist told ministers that a full lockdown through mid-October would likely cost the economy some NIS 35 billion (over $10 billion).
Meanwhile, a study by the Weizmann Institute of Science suggested that virus rates would not be sufficiently reduced under a lockdown before November — at which point the Israeli economy could reopen, Channel 12 reported.
The projection — based on infection trends in the first lockdown in March-May — suggests it would take some two weeks to halve the number of daily cases, and several additional weeks to drive down rates enough to relieve restrictions, the report said.
Earlier, the coronavirus cabinet meeting devolved into coalition infighting between the Likud and Blue and White parties, mostly over the issue of what, if any, limitations should be placed on demonstrations.
Leading Blue and White ministers traded blows with Netanyahu, accusing him of targeting demonstrations against him with the proposed new lockdown measures.
Netanyahu and his allies, meanwhile, accused his coalition rivals of politicking at a time of crisis. Blue and White officials were reported to have told the premier they would agree to limitations on rallies only if a full-on lockdown was imposed.
The position was said to have been backed up at the meeting by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who also said halting protests could only be justified under a full lockdown.
A Channel 12 poll Wednesday showed most of the public backs halting protests (70 percent) as well as shutting synagogues on Yom Kippur (60%).
The poll also found more people blame the public for the state of the pandemic (48%) than blame the government (42%).
Protests and prayers have been a bone of contention during the political wrangling over the new lockdown measures. Religious leaders have bristled at calls to limit prayers in synagogues while mass protests are allowed to go on.
However there now appears to be wider support among rabbis for a closure of synagogues. Wednesday saw Rabbi David Yosef, a member of the Shas party’s rabbinical council, instruct his followers: “Please immediately close synagogues and study halls. Pray and study only outdoors.”
And Ynet reported that Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said he would back the closure of synagogues if that’s what the government orders.
Under the current restrictions, prayer services can be held indoors, but numbers are limited depending on the size of the synagogue, the number of entrances and local infection rates. Synagogues must also accommodate four square meters per worshiper, with that rule overriding any others.
The cabinet debate came as the Health Ministry said on Wednesday evening that another 3,095 coronavirus cases had been diagnosed since the morning, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 204,690.
Of the 58,400 active cases, 657 are in serious condition, 161 of them on ventilators, the ministry said. Another 250 are in moderate condition with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.
The ministry also said that a notably high 13.6 percent of tests that came back Wednesday were positive.
Tuesday saw a record 6,950 new cases, a massive surge to a record-high number of infections.