Netanyahu hopes for full reopening of country by April

PM says he wants to vaccinate all Israelis over 16 by end of March, shortly after the elections; top officials urge public to follow coronavirus rules over Purim

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (R) at a press conference in Ramat Gan on February 24, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (R) at a press conference in Ramat Gan on February 24, 2021. (Amos Ben Gershon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday he hopes to fully reopen the country by April and vaccinate the entire Israeli adult population by late March.

Israel this week eased many of its lockdown restrictions, opening stores and many schools, as well as recreational facilities for those vaccinated. As of Wednesday, one-third of the population was fully vaccinated and half had received at least one dose.

COVID-19 infection rates, however, remain high, at over 4,000 a day.

Despite his optimistic projection, the prime minister urged the public not to violate tightened coronavirus restrictions in place for the Purim holiday over the weekend.

Following festive gatherings during Purim last year, which came at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a jump in coronavirus cases in Israel. To prevent a fresh resurgence, ministers approved a nationwide nightly curfew over Purim, which begins Thursday evening and lasts in some locations through Sunday.

“This can’t repeat itself,” Netanyahu said during a press conference on Wednesday, referring to the rise in infections after last year’s celebrations. “We can be happy, we can dress up, but we must observe the rules.”

“It’s especially important because we’re really on the verge of getting out of the pandemic,” he added.

Netanyahu specified five stages for “exiting from the coronavirus”: First, getting safely through the Purim period; second, in the second week of March, gradually further opening the education system; third, also in the second week of March, widening the “green pass” system; fourth, vaccinating all Israelis over 16 by the end of March; and thus, fifth, “to reach a full opening” of the country in April — shortly after the March 23 elections. He didn’t elaborate on what a full reopening would entail.

The premier also urged the over 1 million Israelis who are eligible to be vaccinated but haven’t yet to get inoculated.

“With the help of God, we’ll get through Purim safely so we can celebrate Passover together,” he said.

Israelis shop for costumes at a Red Pirate toy store in Kiryat Ekron, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Purim, on February 14, 2021 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Senior Health Ministry officials told Channel 12 they were not briefed on Netanyahu’s presentation ahead of time and said they were not aware of the details of his plan for reopening the economy.

Speaking after Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said this year’s Purim must not resemble last year’s celebrations.

“Remember, the children are not yet vaccinated. Let’s protect them and avoid parades and parties,” he said.

Purim is usually marked with costume parties as well as large communal meals and drinking, in events bringing together family and friends. 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.

As of Wednesday, over 4.5 million Israelis — roughly half the population — received the first dose of the vaccine, and more than 3.1 million were fully vaccinated.

Police to set up checkpoints, enforce curfew

Ahead of the press conference, police said checkpoints will be deployed in 24 locations around the country to enforce the curfew, which will be in effect Thursday through Saturday night from 8:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. Hundreds of police cars will also patrol roads during the curfew.

Those breaking the curfew will be fined NIS 500 ($150), while those hosting parties or large events during the holiday in violation of the rules will be fined between NIS 5000-10,000 ($1,500-$3,000).

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said police aren’t looking to clash with partygoers, but will be out in full force over the holiday to enforce the restrictions.

“Follow the rules… because we want everyone who is with us this Purim to also be with us next Purim,” he said.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai vowed the Israel Police would use “all available resources” to enforce the Purim restrictions. Shabtai said he instructed investigators to probe anyone who organizes illegal holiday parties.

“We’re all in the situation and we expect the public to listen to the instructions,” he said.

A police officer stops cars at a checkpoint in Jerusalem on September 20, 2020, amid a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Tuesday that officials are concerned violations during Purim 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.

“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.

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