Ministers to reportedly debate limiting groups to 2 people, requiring masks
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Ministers to reportedly debate limiting groups to 2 people, requiring masks

Measures to be discussed in cabinet meeting to include reducing economic activity from 30 to 15%; Bnei Brak mayor pushes back on calls to place cordon around Haredi city

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds the weekly cabinet meeting via videoconference call from the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem due to coronavirus regulations, March 15, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds the weekly cabinet meeting via videoconference call from the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem due to coronavirus regulations, March 15, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Cabinet ministers meeting on Monday to vote on tighter lockdown rules will reportedly debate a proposal to limit gatherings to two people, down from 10, with an exception for family members.

The rules would come in addition to existing regulations that ban Israelis from venturing more than 100 meters from their homes, with the exception of shopping for food or medicines or going to work.

The updated emergency regulations, reported by Channel 12, would also call for paring economic activity in Israel to just 15 percent of normal levels, down from the current 30%, by forcing more workers to remain at home.

The Health Ministry is going to urge ministers to bar Israelis from leaving their homes to attend weddings, only allowing such exits for funerals and circumcisions, the channel reported.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outside a closed yeshiva, in the town of Bnei Brak, on March 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Health Ministry is also weighing a requirement for all Israelis leaving their homes to wear a mask, Hebrew media reported. Officials recognize that there aren’t currently enough masks for everyone so if the restriction is enforced, those who don’t own one would be allowed to improvise with a tissue or piece of cloth.

To date, the Health Ministry has not concluded that there is benefit for civilian use of masks for those not sick with the virus or not experiencing symptoms, but the trend is very popular in Far Eastern countries that have managed to gain control of COVID-19.

During the cabinet meeting, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is reportedly slated to demand a full closure be implemented over Bnei Brak, as the densely populated ultra-Orthodox city has become a hotspot for the virus, with hundreds of cases reported. The city’s mayor Abraham Rubinstein subsequently issued a statement pushing back against the move, instead calling on the government to substantially increase the number of tests being carried out in Bnei Brak and to open up a drive-thru testing facility there.

Monday’s cabinet meeting had been originally scheduled for Sunday but was pushed off at the last minute, reportedly after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for more time to insert changes into a draft of the proposed restrictions.

Netanyahu is said to be seeking a total lockdown, which would force all but some essential workers to remain at home.

Earlier reports indicated that the cabinet would discuss the possibility of restricting people to within 2-3 kilometers from home when buying groceries and supplies, and telling supermarkets to allocate special hours for elderly shoppers who are considered high risk for contracting the virus.

Netanyahu himself, along with several of his close advisers, voluntarily entered quarantine on Monday as a precaution until Health Ministry officials finished their epidemiological investigation into whether he was exposed to the coronavirus.

Netanyahu’s aide Rivka Paluch was confirmed infected with the virus on Sunday, but it remains unclear whether the prime minister was in close contact with her.

Ministers had been set to weigh a package of restrictions on Sunday that would have reportedly included keeping all nonessential workers at home, as well as a rescue package reportedly worth NIS 80 billion ($22.5 billion) aimed at helping businesses weather the crisis.

The budget plan would see some NIS 5 billion for small business, NIS 6 billion for large businesses and more money for a leveraged loan fund, according to the Calcalist daily.

An Israel Police officer gives an ultra-Orthodox man a fine for violating the government’s anti-coronavirus restrictions in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on March 30, 2020. (Screen capture: Israel Police)

The meeting comes as the number of confirmed cases in Israel climbed to 4,347 and the number of deaths related to the virus hit 16.

Netanyahu warned Friday that if there is not an improvement in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases by Sunday, he would have no choice but to order the country into a complete shutdown.

Finance Ministry officials have resisted a full lockdown on movement, warning Netanyahu of dire consequences for the economy. The ministry has clashed with officials from the Health Ministry who have for weeks advocated the strictest of measures.

Israelis were ordered starting last Wednesday to remain in their homes unless they were engaging in a small number of specially designated approved activities, including purchasing food and medicine or a short walk of no more than 100 meters (328 feet) from one’s home. Those found violating those regulations are subject to fines of upwards of NIS 500 ($140) and imprisonment.

Police patrol the promenade in Tel Aviv on March 28, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Police have begun enforcing the current measures, handing out fines to people found violating the directives.

A series of increasingly strict restrictions have left the economy struggling, with over 700,000 Israelis filing for unemployment in March alone.

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