Speaking to the nation from self-quarantine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set out a series of new restrictions on Monday evening, saying further limits the ability of Israelis to leave their homes due to the coronavirus pandemic would soon go into effect.
Speaking ahead of a cabinet meeting to approve the measures, Netanyahu announced that gatherings of more than two people would be banned, along with outdoor prayer quorums, and said the amount of workers allowed to leave home would be further pared down.
“There won’t be gatherings of over two people who are not from the same nuclear family,” he announced from the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem, speaking after his office announced that he would be voluntarily self-quarantining, along with several senior aides, as a precaution until Health Ministry officials finish their epidemiological investigation into whether he was exposed to the coronavirus from an aide who has contracted COVID-19.
Netanyahu opened his address by saying he was voluntarily quarantining as a “personal example” to Israelis. “The cameraman is six meters away, and I did my own make-up and hair, which is why it looks like this,” he said.
Shortly after his address, his office announced that tests taken by him, his family, and aides came back negative. However, the PMO clarified that the premier would remain in quarantine until receiving further instructions from the Health Ministry.
Netanyahu said during his Monday address that no kind of prayer will be allowed even in open areas — “pray only on your own” — and that religious events should be restricted as much as possible.
Only immediate family members will be allowed to attend weddings and other life-cycle celebrations, he said, though 20 people are still allowed at funerals and 10 at circumcisions.
Netanyahu also called on Israelis not to visit family during the Passover holiday and said only nuclear family members who live in the same home will be able to celebrate the April 7 seder together.
“This year’s seder night will be remembered as seger night,” he said, using the Hebrew word for shutdown.
“These same restrictions apply as relevant to all faiths,” he noted.
Speaking just before Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who addressed Israelis from a separate location to set out details of the government’s economic package to assist the economy through the crisis, Netanyahu announced that the percentage of a company’s staffers allowed to go to work would be further reduced, from 30 to 15 percent.
The cabinet was set to approve the new restrictions and economic support moves in a videoconference meeting later Monday evening.
“It’s true that in Israel, we’re in a better situation than almost every other country,” Netanyahu said, but he added that more needs to be done to curb the spread of infection. “We want to reach the level of some countries in Asia that have slowed the pace of infection still further.”
Netanyahu went on to rap “extremist” groups in the country for not adhering to emergency directives — “deliberately breaching and even showing contempt” for the rules — and said he had therefore ordered security forces to step up enforcement in areas with a high number of violations.
He stressed that most Israelis, including those in the ultra-Orthodox community, are acting responsibly. Those who are flouting the rules, he said, endanger themselves and everybody else, and are trampling on the principle of “love thy neighbor.”
Netanyahu closed his address by calling on fellow lawmakers to put aside their differences and reach a unity government. “It requires [large] concessions from all of us,” he said.
“There is no more important goal than joining hands — virtually, of course — for the future of us all,” he added.
Netanyahu has been negotiating a unity pact with his rival Benny Gantz, though the talks have run into some difficulties.
During the Monday night cabinet meeting, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman is slated to demand a full closure be implemented over Bnei Brak, as the densely populated ultra-Orthodox city has become a hotspot for the virus, with hundreds of cases reported. The city’s mayor Abraham Rubinstein is pushing back against the move, instead calling on the government to substantially increase the number of tests being carried out in Bnei Brak and to open up a drive-thru testing facility there.
The Health Ministry is also weighing a requirement for all Israelis leaving their homes to wear a mask, Hebrew media reported. Officials recognize that there are not currently enough masks for everyone, so if the restriction is enforced, those who do not own one would be allowed to improvise with a tissue or piece of cloth, the reports said.
To date, the Health Ministry has not concluded that there is benefit for civilian use of masks for those not sick with the virus or not experiencing symptoms, but the trend is very popular in Far Eastern countries that have managed to gain control of COVID-19.
The number of confirmed cases in Israel climbed to 4,695 on Monday evening — a jump of over 300 cases in one day — and the number of deaths related to the virus is at 16.
Israelis were ordered starting last Wednesday to remain in their homes unless they are going to permitted work or engaging in a small number of specially designated approved activities, including purchasing food and medicine or a short walk of no more than 100 meters (328 feet) from one’s home. Those found violating those regulations are subject to fines of upwards of NIS 500 ($140) and imprisonment.
Police have begun enforcing the current measures, handing out fines to people found violating the directives.
A series of increasingly strict restrictions have left the economy struggling, with over 760,000 Israelis filing for unemployment in March alone.