Ministers unanimously vote to extend lockdown to Sunday night

National closure had been slated to end Wednesday; lawmakers to convene again Thursday to discuss easing some restrictions next week, some limits lifted for weddings

The closed Gan Meir shopping mall in Tel Aviv during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, October 13, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
The closed Gan Meir shopping mall in Tel Aviv during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, October 13, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The so-called coronavirus cabinet unanimously voted Tuesday night to extend the ongoing lockdown until next week, pushing off any decision to start easing the sweeping restrictions now in effect across the country.

The coronavirus lockdown will now remain in place until October 18, the Prime Minister’s Office and Health Ministry said in a joint statement.

Ministers will convene again Thursday to discuss lifting some restrictions next week “in accordance with the morbidity statistics,” including allowing takeout from restaurants and the reopening of preschools and some small businesses that don’t receive in-person customers.

The restrictions on flights abroad were extended until Thursday and a meeting will be held Wednesday to discuss the issue, according to the statement.

Ministers also agreed to remove the one-kilometer travel restriction for weddings for brides, grooms, their immediate relatives, and officiating rabbis; let professional sports teams resume training; and publish details of the government’s plan for gradually lifting the lockdown and information regarding the criteria for lifting additional restrictions.

During the coronavirus cabinet meeting, top health officials presented data on current infection rates and on the benchmarks that needed to be reached to lift restrictions.

“The experts said the decision to ease the lockdown and allow the gradual reopening requires definite and continued reduction in morbidity,” the joint statement said. “To reach this, additional days are required.”

Elderly Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside a senior living facility in Tel Aviv on October 13, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The controversial restrictions on demonstrations were not expected to remain in place however, as the government on Monday informed the High Court of Justice it would not extend the special emergency measures that have barred mass gatherings of anti-Netanyahu protesters.

The current lockdown, Israel’s second since the pandemic began, started on September 18 and had been slated to end automatically on October 14.

Though ministers voted unanimously to extend the lockdown, they were reportedly divided during the meeting over how long it should stay in force.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu recommended to ministers 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.

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

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.

Defense Minister Benny 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.

The Health Ministry has a phased exit plan spanning four months 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.

A hospital worker at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem takes a swab to test for the coronavirus on October 12, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Health Ministry figures released Tuesday showed 3,112 new cases were 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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