The cabinet on Tuesday voted to impose a nationwide nighttime curfew over the coming Purim holiday in a bid to prevent public gatherings that could cause a rise in coronavirus infections.
The curfew will be in effect on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, beginning at 8:30 p.m. and ending at 5 a.m, according to the government decision.
“This is to prevent what happened last Purim — we don’t want a repeat,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a tour of a vaccination center in Acre earlier Tuesday, warning that the virus was still spreading despite Israel’s vaccination campaign.
Since the start of the outbreak in the country last year, the government has occasionally ordered curfews, specifically during major holidays, in an effort to prevent gatherings and an inevitable spread of the virus.
Purim this year starts on Thursday night and lasts, in some locations, through Sunday. The festival is usually marked with costume parties as well as large communal meals and drinking, in events bringing together family and friends.
Last Purim, at the start of the pandemic, there was a jump in virus infections after many ignored rules against holding large events.
The cabinet meeting was held a day after Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that his ministry would push to clamp down on festivities.
Synagogues and other houses of worship, however, were permitted to reopen last Friday morning, with attendance limited to 10 people indoors and 20 outside, ahead of Purim.
The rules for other gatherings were similarly relaxed, with outdoor gatherings of up to 20 people, and indoor groups of up to 10, allowed. The previous rules restricted outdoor gatherings to 10 people and indoors to five.
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Tuesday that officials are concerned violations could push infection rates up, forcing the country back into a larger lockdown once more, and implored members of the ultra-Orthodox community to heed the gathering rules over the festival.
“We recall what happened during the previous holiday and you are familiar with the fragile situation today. We must stop the rise in infections that could happen as a result of behavior over Purim,” Ash told ultra-Orthodox reporters in a special briefing.
“What will we say in two weeks if we are forced to close the education system because of a rise in infections? It isn’t reasonable that we should shut down schools because of Purim,” he warned.
Speaking hours after the Military Intelligence taskforce released data showing that transmission rates were once again on the rise, Ash said further closures were inevitable if the trend continued.
“The infection rates are dropping, but in the past two days the transmission rate has changed direction and has started to rise slightly. Is this the result of the reopening of education and the economy? It could be, but we don’t know for sure,” he said. “If we see the rates rise, and the basic reproduction number nears 1, we will be forced to close things that have been reopened.”
Israel’s R-value — the average number of people each coronavirus-positive person infects, based on new case numbers from 10 days earlier due to the virus’s incubation period — is currently at 0.86, up from Friday’s 0.79, the lowest number seen in months.
The transmission rate staying below 1 means each virus carrier is infecting on average less than one person — a sign of decline in the spread of the virus.
The number of serious cases on Tuesday stood at 798, the lowest recorded number since the beginning of the year, after it climbed to an all-time high of 1,201 in mid-January.
Ministry data showed there were 41,487 active virus cases, including 4,677 infections diagnosed on Monday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 757,150.
The death toll stood at 5,604 after 13 people died Monday.
Israel has seen a continued decline in morbidity, particularly among high-risk groups, that is largely being credited to the country’s rapid vaccination campaign.