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Ministers extend virus rules by week; mull reopening schools, commerce

PM says state can’t afford to split 1st, 2nd graders into ‘pods’; coronavirus cabinet also set to weigh higher fines for violators, special rules for Dead Sea, Eilat tourism

Parents accompany their children to the kindergarten in Tel Aviv as they return to kindergarten on October18, 2020, after being shut down during a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Parents accompany their children to the kindergarten in Tel Aviv as they return to kindergarten on October18, 2020, after being shut down during a national lockdown to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The coronavirus cabinet on Sunday extended the coronavirus health regulations until next week, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government will weigh reopening some schools and commerce on November 1.

Ministers voted to keep the existing rules in place until Sunday at midnight, before continuing their debate on how to gradually reopen elementary schools and some businesses, following a five-week lockdown.

The panel also reportedly backed a proposal by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, effective immediately, to allow students and teachers to gather outdoors in informal groups of up to 15, even as schools remain shut. This was not immediately confirmed by the Prime Minister’s Office or Health Ministry.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Netanyahu said: “It could be that [schools] will partially open for first and second grades [on November 1], and we will also discuss the partial opening of commerce, again, gradually and responsibly, and of course this all depends on the level of morbidity.”

“If morbidity goes down, then the restrictions will also gradually come down. If morbidity goes up, there will be no choice but to reimpose the restrictions,” he added.

Leaks to Hebrew media from the meeting, however, quoted Netanyahu as saying the government cannot afford to split the lower grades into “capsules” or pods of fewer children — a Health Ministry demand — which he estimated would cost the state billions.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum on October 19, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/ Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

Ministers have been discussing a plan that would return kids in grades 1-4 to school — to enable parents to go back to work — while older students remain at home. Schools have been closed since September 18, when a nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen last week.

The plan to split grades 3 and 4 into pods has been approved and funded. However, the Education Ministry says implementing that solution in grades 1 and 2 as well, as the Health Ministry is demanding, would cost an additional NIS 5.3 billion ($1.57 billion) and require five weeks of preparation including the hiring of 13,000 new employees.

The Finance Ministry opposes any plan that would require additional funding. The Education Ministry has proposed the resumption of studies for grades 1-2 in pods that would see each group come to school for half of the week. The government is searching for creative solutions to the problem.

Deri demanded the government make a decision on the matter by Sunday night.

“We cannot disperse without a decision. I cannot accept that first and second grades will learn three days a week — it’s impossible for the children,” said Deri, according to Channel 12.

People at the Red Sea in the southern city of Eilat on May 13, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Netanyahu also said the government would consider “special arrangements” for tourism at the resort town of Eilat and hotels around the Dead Sea.

“We are making special arrangements for them because they are isolated, they are separated. This is very important news for the residents of these areas, and also for the citizens of Israel, who would like to go to defined and safe places,” he said.

Also on the agenda Sunday was the possibility of significantly increased fines, given high rates of noncompliance with existing guidelines in some areas, and the schedule for opening some public-facing businesses, which have lobbied loudly to be allowed to swiftly resume business activity.

Though schools nationwide have been officially shut due to virus restrictions, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox elementary and high-school yeshivas — including in high-infection areas — opened last Sunday in defiance of the law at the order of a senior rabbi, with many ultra-Orthodox officials justifying the move and police only sporadically enforcing the restrictions.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish kids from the Kretchnif Hasidic dynasty wearing face masks as they listen to their teacher at a school in the city of Rehovot, on September 10, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

The current fine for schools that open in violation of the guidelines stands at NIS 5,000 ($1,481)

“Today, we will submit to the cabinet increased fines so that everyone, without exception, across Israeli society, honors the agreements. This is not aimed at anyone – it is aimed at the virus. It is aimed on behalf of the health of us all,” said Netanyahu.

At the meeting, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu warned ministers that it will be impossible to continue easing restrictions if a daily test rate of 50,000 cannot be maintained.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu said though Israel currently has the capacity for 70,000 daily tests, the number of people applying for tests has dropped off in recent days, and stands only at some 40,000.

“The problem is a lack of response and will by the public to be tested,” he said.

Gamzu said infection rates were down among the ultra-Orthodox and up in Arab communities, but testing rates had dropped among both.

Gamzu also said he would raise a proposal to impose a full closure on the town of Madjal Shams in northern Israel, which has seen coronavirus infections soar in recent days, according to Hebrew media reports. The closure would include restrictions on movement.

He warned generally of a renewed spike in infections in Arab towns.

“There are probably dozens of weddings a day in the Arab community. Sakhnin and Umm al-Fahm are in danger of becoming ‘red’ cities,” Gamzu said, referring to hotspots, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

He also cautioned that the government could not yet detect the ramifications of its decisions last week to reopen preschools and daycares.

People walk on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on October 25, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90 )

That was echoed by Health Minister Yuli Edelstein.

“We still don’t know the effects of what we’ve done. We won’t know until two weeks have passed” from October 18, said Edelstein, according to Army Radio.

Ministers in the coronavirus cabinet also argued over reopening open-air markets, including Jerusalem Mahane Yehuda. Netanyahu was quoted arguing that the Health Ministry must draft tighter guidelines for enforcement in those areas, while signaling a willingness to reopen the markets later on.

The Health Ministry has broken down the government plan to ease the restrictions into nine distinct stages. Netanyahu has expressed interest in condensing the plan into five stages, but health officials have warned that could cause infections to spiral.

Following the initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer that led to the second national lockdown.

According to Health Ministry figures published Saturday evening, the number of active cases declined to 15,876, out of 309,374 infections confirmed since the pandemic began. There were 552 people in serious condition, with 218 of them on ventilators. Another 158 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms. The death toll grew to 2,366.

Because testing rates typically fall off on the weekends and holidays, Friday saw just 27,481 tests performed, a drop from around 40,000 per day in recent weeks. There were 692 coronavirus cases recorded Friday, a positive test rate of 2.5 percent.

Thursday marked the first time since July 3 that fewer than 1,000 new cases were recorded on a weekday (excluding Sunday, after the weekend). The number of tests performed was 32,290, with a positive test rate of 2.8%.

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