Ministers vote to reopen shops next week, over objections of health officials

Health minister and virus czar cite rising rate of new cases stemming from each infection; Finance Minister lauds move, after nearly two months of being shuttered

A woman walks next to a closed store at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on October 13, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A woman walks next to a closed store at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on October 13, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ministers voted Wednesday to allow shops and stores to reopen next week over the objections of health officials, nearly two months after they were shuttered due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection rates from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October with a nationwide lockdown, which it began to gradually ease last month. However, non-essential businesses have remained closed, with health officials urging a slow and gradual reopening of the economy, schools and more.

The Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that ministers had okayed the opening of shops starting Sunday, with a maximum of four customers allowed in the store at a time, and in compliance with coronavirus regulations.

However, the move only covers street-front stores, seemingly excluding those in malls or shopping centers, and only in areas with the lowest infection rates.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein voted against reopening stores due to the rising rates of infection transmission among the Israeli public, warning that it could lead to “more outbreaks and a third lockdown.”

Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu visits the coronavirus unit at Ziv Medical Center in Safed, northern Israel, September 27, 2020 (David Cohen/FLASH90)

Officials have pointed to figures showing that a trend of dropping infection numbers has stopped and possibly begun to reverse. The Health Ministry said 838 new infections were recorded Tuesday, up from 781 new cases the day before.

Outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu also pushed back against easing restrictions due to the basic reproduction number, or the rate of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection.

Gamzu warned that Israel’s infection reproduction was at 0.88, and over 1 in Arab locales, well over the 0.8 level decided on by the cabinet as a minimum level required to reopen businesses.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was also reportedly reluctant to okay the openings, warned that the government could snap back some restrictions if numbers continued to mount.

“We know there is a certain rise in infection rates, and because of that, we will decide next week, before the third stage of easing restrictions, that if there are more infections we will have to stop and maybe even tighten restrictions,” he said in a video.

The move was lauded by Finance Minister Israel Katz who said that “small business owners are at the forefront of the economic struggle caused by COVID-19, who have paid a heavy price due to restrictions.”

“We are committed to doing everything we can to get them back to work,” he added.

This extended closure has caused fury among business owners over the financial damage the lockdown caused them, and what many consider inadequate government help. There have been angry protests and even scenes of shopkeepers throwing merchandise into the street and setting it alight.

Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)

Before the meeting Wednesday an alliance of retail chains in apparel, commerce, and catering sent a letter to Cabinet members, threatening that if small businesses were allowed to open, but open-air shopping centers remained closed, they would open their doors Sunday against regulations.

The letter expressed outrage at the idea of differentiating between small businesses and open-air strip malls and said that businesses will be left with no choice but to open their businesses Sunday, while maintaining government coronavirus safety regulations.

“We have been hearing in recent days a new idea from the Ministry of Health, that produces an artificial distinction between street shops and open-air shopping centers. No such separation has been made in any country in the world,” the letter said.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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