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Ministers to discuss easing lockdown, reopening stores but not schools

Cabinet to meet on allowing shops, malls to reopen but keep school gates shut; experts said concerned about reliability of transmission data from previously high infection areas

View of closed shops in the Rehovot Mall, on October 19, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
View of closed shops in the Rehovot Mall, on October 19, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Ministers were set to meet on Tuesday ahead of the second stage of Israel’s lockdown exit strategy, with discussions to be held on switching the order of the planned stages and reopening stores ahead of the lower grades in schools.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that some ministers were additionally expected to demand that synagogues be reopened if stores were allowed to operate.

According to the original staged plan presented by the Health Ministry, schools will gradually allow students to return assuming epidemiological benchmarks were hit.

Preschools and kindergartens opened on Sunday, and grades 1-4 were set to begin in-person lessons  once Israel manages to keep below 1,000 infections a day.

Parents accompany their children to the kindergarten in Tel Aviv as they return after a national lockdown was eased, October18, 2020 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

However, according to Channel 12 news, one option to be discussed by ministers at a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday is switching the reopening stages to allow the opening of businesses with in-store customers, as well as malls, instead of restarting school for students in first through fourth grades.

According to a Channel 12 report, the Health Ministry told the Education Ministry that when schools reopen, first and second grades should operate in capsules — small pods of children — in a similar structure to that planned for older children.

However, the Health Ministry reportedly said it would take a month to organize such a plan, and would require further financing from the Treasury.

Channel 13 reported that health officials were expected to tell ministers that either schools or commerce can officially open — not a combination of the two.

Boys play in a yeshiva school in Beitar Illit that opened in violation of coronavirus regulations, October 18, 2020. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Despite the restrictions, hundreds of Haredi elementary and high school yeshivas — including in high infection areas — have opened in defiance of the law at the order of a senior rabbi, with many ultra-Orthodox officials justifying the move and police only sporadically enforcing the restrictions.

Channel 13 said that advisers to Ronni Gamzu, who is spearheading the country’s efforts in the pandemic, were additionally concerned that the data showing low national infection rates was unreliable as previously high infection areas were showing massive, unlikely drops in new cases, as well as undesirably low levels of testing.

Therefore, the unnamed experts were said to caution that each stage of the exit plan last long enough to ensure that transmission rates were low. The plan currently calls for stages lasting two weeks.

Municipal inspectors patrol the Carmel market to check that shop owners are keeping to restrictions, Tel Aviv, on October 19, 2020 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

After a monthlong lockdown, infection rates dropped precipitously, leading to calls for a swifter reopening of schools, businesses and public activity. A similar scenario following the first lockdown caused health officials to abandon their staged plan and open nearly all schools at once in early May — which has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer.

The Health Ministry on Tuesday morning said 1,479 new coronavirus cases were recorded the day earlier, raising the number of infections since the pandemic began to 305,348.

The number of active cases stood at 23,347, after dropping below 30,000 on Monday for the first time since September 8.

Among those infected, there were 636 in serious condition, with 233 on ventilators. Another 179 were in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms.

The death roll rose to 2,268, up by five overnight. There were 54 fatalities on Monday.

The Health Ministry said 41,722 tests were performed on Monday and 3.7 percent came back positive.

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