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‘We’re starting to release personal, economic space’

PM announces steps to ease lockdown, pending cabinet approval

Month after Israelis were told to ‘stay home’ to thwart COVID-19, workplaces to be allowed increased capacity, some shops to open, group prayers for up to 10 permitted

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference, April 18, 2020. (video screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference, April 18, 2020. (video screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday evening announced the removal of some nationwide coronavirus restrictions on industries, commerce and personal freedoms starting Sunday, as part of what he said was a careful and gradual process.

The premier said the new guidelines would include a return to work of some employees in the manufacturing and service industries, albeit under various restrictions, as well as the reopening of certain stores.

Ministers were to discuss and approve the measures later Saturday night.

In a press conference with leaders of the health and economic sectors, Netanyahu said Israel’s mortality rates were among the lowest in OECD countries, while its testing numbers were among the highest.

“Until today we took measures to restrict movement… to reduce the number of people at work… to track confirmed cases,” he said. “These measures have proven themselves… these positive results enable us to ease the restrictions gradually.”

However, he and other officials warned that the success of the new phase of managing the crisis was wholly dependent on the public continuing to behave responsibly and to take all precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

Netanyahu said the situation would be reassessed in two weeks’ time and if the situation continued to improve there would be a further easing of restrictions, but if there is another outbreak they would be reimposed.

Netanyahu set out the general steps now to be introduced:

1. Raising the proportion of workers allowed at their workplaces from 15% to 30%;

2. Allowing high-tech and certain other workplaces to return more of their workforce;

3. Introducing a new “Purple Badge” certification which workplaces will have to adhere to in order to operate — certification will not require outside approval by any state body but will be mandatory. It will include demands for face masks, daily temperature checks for all employees and regular sterilization of surfaces;

3. Reopening some stores — including those selling electrical goods, household goods, opticians, and others — limited to two clients at any one time, and stipulating that a physical buffer must be installed at registers. Malls and markets will remain closed;

5. Prioritizing staffing of government offices that assist the private sector;

6. Restarting special education programs for groups of up to three children, and allowing kids from three families to be looked after by a single day-carer;

7. Adjusting and increasing public transportation as appropriate;

8. Allowing sports in fixed pairs, up to 500 meters from home;

9. Allowing outdoor prayers of up to 10 — “a minyan” — with two meters between worshipers, wearing masks;

10. Introducing a plan to deal strategically with elderly care homes and facilities, which have been particularly hard hit by the virus.

Incidentally, as the TV cameras began broadcasting, Netanyahu sniffed a few times, seemed to search in vain in his pockets for a tissue, and then quickly ran a finger beneath his nose.

Speaking after Netanyahu, Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov stressed that all previous guidelines for the public remained in force, including the obligation to wear face masks in public and to maintain a distance of at least two meters between individuals at all times.

Citizens are still required to remain within 100 meters of their homes unless taking part in permitted activity.

He warned that people over the age of 67, as well as those at high risk of illness (including sufferers of coronary disease, high blood pressure and those hospitalized in the last six months) should remain at home for now.

Netanyahu added that the coming Independence Day and Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism events will take place without crowds.

And he asked Israel’s Muslim citizens to avoid the family feasts and gatherings associated with Ramadan, which starts on Thursday.

Shopping malls, restaurants, toy shops, beauty and hair salons and clothing stores were to stay closed at this time.

Channel 12 reported that some cabinet ministers were opposed to certain restrictions announced in Saturday’s press conference, including limiting the new 500-meter personal zone to sports activities only, and could vote against them later in the night.

It also reported that police officials had expressed concerns they would have difficulty differentiating between those engaged in authorized sports activities and other unauthorized action.

The ministers are also slated to approve a measure allowing police to hand out fines to those who don’t wear masks outside. For the past week, wearing face masks in public has been required but police haven’t been given authority to fine those who refuse to do so.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said Saturday the planned fine of NIS 500 ($140) was far too high and disproportionate, and said he would seek to lower the amount to NIS 100 ($28).

Statistics on the rate of new cases and the number of people on ventilators have been deemed relatively encouraging in recent days. Israel’s death toll stood at 164 on Saturday evening, with 113 people on ventilators.

Channel 12 reported Friday that under pressure from the Finance Ministry and other ministers, the plan was more far-reaching than Netanyahu and Bar Siman-Tov had intended. The report said Netanyahu favored keeping the existing harsh restrictions in place until after Israel celebrates Independence Day on April 29, but ultimately agreed to ease restrictions.

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