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Netanyahu warns steps could be reversed if infections rise

More schoolkids to resume studies, strip malls to reopen in low-infection areas

Virus cabinet also approves lockdowns and curfews in medium- to high-infection areas; grades 5-6 go back to school next week, grades 11-12 on December 1

A classroom at an elementary school in Tel Aviv is empty after Israel closed schools ahead of a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, September 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A classroom at an elementary school in Tel Aviv is empty after Israel closed schools ahead of a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, September 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

After failing to reach a decision a day earlier, the coronavirus cabinet on Monday approved a string of decisions to further reopen schools and shopping centers in relatively low infection areas, while imposing localized curfews and lockdowns in hard-hit towns.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed on the return to school of fifth and sixth graders on November 24 in so-called “green” and “yellow” communities, with low-to-medium infection rates, according to Hebrew-language media reports. Meanwhile, grades 11-12 will return on December 1.

Also according to the plan, which was presented by Netanyahu in a press conference, open-air shopping centers with more than 20 stores will be allowed to open starting Tuesday in low-infection localities designated as “green.”

Alongside the moves to ease the restrictions in low-infection areas, the criteria for imposing local lockdowns in high-infection “red” zones will be broadened, and nighttime curfews will be imposed in medium-high “orange” zones. Additionally, the time for changing the designation of an area from “orange” to “red” will be cut in half, Netanyahu said.

A pilot program will also see one closed shopping mall reopening in a reduced form, with successful results then possibly leading to the reopening of all malls and markets.

Ministers also approved a toughening of enforcement of the rules and higher fines, with Netanyahu warning that a rise in infections could cancel all the steps to ease the restrictions.

Ministers also decided to add the town of Iksal and the city of Qalansawe to the list of “red” localities and impose a lockdown there, as infections in the Arab community remained higher than in the rest of the country. An ongoing lockdown in the Druze town of Buq’ata was extended. Unless extended, the lockdowns will remain in effect until Sunday morning.

A bid to close all businesses every day from 7 p.m. was not approved.

The Health Ministry said the coronavirus cabinet was also expected Monday evening to approve the designation of the Red Sea resort city of Eilat and hotels at the Ein Bokek area in the southern Dead Sea as “special tourist islands.”

The ministry said that starting 24 hours after the measure is approved, tourist entry to those areas will only be allowed for those who undergo a coronavirus test during the preceding 72 hours and get a negative result.

Residents of Eilat will have to present a test result from the preceding week or undergo a free, quick test that will be set up at the entrance to the city.

Israelis wear protective masks as they sit in the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv, on October 28, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Unnamed Health Ministry officials were cited by Channel 12 as expressing outrage that restrictions were continuing to be eased even as the basic reproduction rate — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — surpassed 1.0, when 0.8 had been defined as the threshold beyond which restrictions would stop being eased. They also lamented that contrary to what has been previously stated, the government is not waiting two weeks between phases to ensure certain steps aren’t causing infections to spike.

The Health Ministry on Monday evening said 620 coronavirus cases were identified the previous day, as testing levels started to rise again after dropping over the weekend.

There were 7,871 confirmed active cases in the country, with the total tally since the start of the pandemic at 324,644, according to the Health Ministry. Of the active cases, 320 were in serious condition, including 148 in critical condition and 128 on ventilators. The death toll rose by two to 2,734.

On Sunday, a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet ended following seven hours of debate, without ministers approving any rollback of lockdown measures nor any new restrictions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, chairs an emergency meeting of senior ministers to decide on measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, July 16, 2020. (Chaim Tzach/GPO)

According to Channel 12 news, the reopening of school has been the most contentious issue. The reopening of schools in May and again in September was blamed for a sharp surge in virus cases nationwide.

One of the concerns ministers had discussed is the basic reproduction rate — a figure representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects — which is on the rise and has surpassed 1.0, meaning the number of active cases is rising rather than declining.

Israel sharply brought down its daily coronavirus infection numbers from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October, with a nationwide lockdown, its second since the start of the pandemic.

The lockdown paralyzed much of public life and the economy and shuttered the entire education system. The government began removing some restrictions a few weeks ago, opening preschools and kindergartens, then grades 1-4, as well as permitting some street-front businesses to begin operations. The rest of the education system has continued with remote learning.

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