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Ministers set to okay Hanukkah virus rules as daily cases again top 1,800

Cabinet expected to approve restrictions on visiting others’ homes from 5:30 p.m. until midnight during holiday, after scrapping nightly curfew due to legal difficulties

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus at a testing center, in Rishon LeZion on December 8, 2020. (Flash90)
Health care workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus at a testing center, in Rishon LeZion on December 8, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel’s daily coronavirus infection rate surpassed 1,800 on Wednesday, the Health Ministry said Thursday morning, as the cabinet was set to convene to approve fresh restrictions for the eight-day Hanukkah holiday.

According to the ministry, 1,828 new cases were diagnosed Wednesday. That’s the second time this week the daily caseload has been over 1,800, the highest rate since October, after 1,854 new cases were confirmed on Monday.

Of the 15,716 active cases, 318 were in serious condition, 100 of them on ventilators. Over 71,000 tests were conducted on Wednesday, with 2.6 percent returning positive.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic stood at 2,934.

The cabinet was convening Thursday morning to approve a proposal banning visits to others’ homes during the evening hours on Hanukkah, with exceptions made for essential visits, such as providing care.

Jewish children seen lighting the Hanukkah candles as they learn about the upcoming Jewish holiday at a kindergarden in Moshav Yashresh, on November 30, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The ban would be in effect every night from 5:30 p.m. until midnight, with a NIS 500 fine ($153) for violators.

It’s unclear how police would enforce such an order, as they cannot legally enter homes without a warrant.

Thursday is the first night of the eight-day holiday of Hanukkah, which is often marked by extended family get-togethers in the evening for the traditional candle-lighting. The government has consistently attempted to impose restrictions over holidays throughout the pandemic, fearing that gatherings will bolster the spread of the coronavirus.

The limitations will only affect Jewish-majority towns, while communities with major Christian populations will go under similar limitations during the Christmas period.

Stores and other walk-in businesses will also be ordered to shut during those hours, and gatherings at synagogues will be banned.

The restrictions would not affect restaurants offering takeout and deliveries or other sectors of the economy.

But disagreements among ministers on the Health Ministry-backed proposal were apparent during the Thursday morning meeting, according to Hebrew media reports. Finance Minister Israel Katz and Science Minister Izhar Shay were specifically opposed to the limitations on commerce, the Ynet news site said.

The cabinet meeting was paused as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped out, with ministers refusing to continue discussions until he returned.

Health officials have warned that another nationwide lockdown — the third since the start of the pandemic — could be unavoidable as the number of cases continues to rise. 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.

The reported proposal comes after legal challenges sunk a planned nightly curfew that the cabinet had approved for December 9 to January 2. Representatives of the attorney general cautioned that they would not be able to defend the government’s decision to impose a curfew against possible legal challenges because senior Health Ministry officials were not on board with the move.

The curfew was challenged as ineffective by senior health officials including the coronavirus czar, Nachman Ash, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

Netanyahu on Wednesday night announced that Israel would begin its vaccination drive on December 27, with the country aiming to administer 60,000 shots a day. Israel received its first shipment of Pfizer vaccines on Wednesday and is poised to receive hundreds of thousands of additional doses by the weekend.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the arrival of a DHL freight plane transporting the first batch of Pfizer vaccines at Ben Gurion Airport on December 9, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Netanyahu, in a speech at Ben Gurion Airport as the first batch arrived, said that he would be the first person in Israel to receive the coronavirus vaccine as part of a campaign to encourage inoculation.

According to Channel 12, the first shipment is something of a pilot program, to practice the transit and storage of the vaccines, which must be stored at -70°C (-94°F) and used within five days of their removal from cold storage.

The US Food and Drug Administration will review Pfizer’s trial data later this week. If it approves the vaccine for use, Israeli officials are expected to give it their okay.

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