Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday evening said all Israelis should wear masks when out in public, and promised stipends for Passover for Israeli children and pensioners.
He also introduced strict limitations to travel in and out of Bnei Brak, the ultra-Orthodox city with one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the country, as part of new directives to stop the spread of the pandemic.
Netanyahu, emerging from voluntary quarantine at his official residence in Jerusalem after an aide tested positive for the coronavirus, said that people who don’t have masks can use an improvised facial covering such as a scarf.
Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov reiterated that Israelis should not rush out to buy masks as they should be left for medical professionals, but can improvise with material and rubber bands.
The most important thing, Bar Siman-Tov said, was that the nose and mouth were covered.
Netanyahu also announced that families will receive a one-off payment of NIS 500 per child (approximately $140), up to the fourth child, ahead of the upcoming Passover holiday. There will also be stipends for the elderly, he said, without specifying the minimum age. He said these payments will be approved via emergency legislation, and that payments will be made directly into bank accounts, with no bureaucratic red tape.
The prime minister also announced steps to try to slow down the rate of infection in Bnei Brak, with further limits of travel in and out of the virus-hit city.
“We have decided to limit to the bare minimum the entrances and exits from the city,” he said, before adding that all sick people in the city will be evacuated to special medical hotels in an attempt to stop family members from infecting one another.
With 800 cases and counting, Bnei Brak has the second-highest rate of infection in the country after Jerusalem, despite being the ninth-largest city in Israel by population. Authorities this week have upped enforcement of social distancing regulations in Bnei Brak and other ultra-Orthodox areas, where some have flouted rules against congregating or leaving home for nonessential reasons.
The premier said anyone arriving in Israel from abroad will as of Thursday be required to quarantine at one of the special hotels for 14 days over concerns they may be infected with the coronavirus. This came a day after it was revealed that he had nixed a similar plan.
Passengers who arrived in Israel on Wednesday were initially told they would be taken to the hotels but were later released to their homes amid a host of what the Defense Ministry described as “legal and procedural” difficulties with implementing the directive.
Netanyahu and Bar Siman-Tov both reiterated that Israelis must only celebrate the upcoming Passover festival with their immediate families with whom they currently live, amid fears that many will flout the social distancing rules and host or attend large family gatherings, as is customary on the night of the traditional Seder.
The issue of Seder night was causing officials to “lose sleep,” Health Ministry legal adviser Uri Schwartz told journalists in a briefing Wednesday.
Israelis were ordered starting last Wednesday to remain in their homes unless they are taking part in a small number of approved activities, including for some work, purchasing food and medicine or taking a short walk no more than 100 meters (328 feet) from their home. Those found violating those regulations are subject to fines of upwards of NIS 500 ($140) or imprisonment.
The cabinet overnight Monday approved a set of new measures further tightening restrictions on the public amid efforts to limit the spread of the pandemic, including a ban on prayer quorums and limits on funerals and Jewish circumcision ceremonies. The new regulations also place further limitations on workplaces, seeking to lower the workforce outside homes from 30 percent to 15% of its full capacity, and instructing all those working outside their homes to take their temperature daily before coming in to work.
The number of COVID-19 deaths in Israel rose Wednesday to 26, and the number of people diagnosed with the coronavirus increased to 6,092.
Netanyahu said Wednesday that Israel was at a fateful juncture in the battle against the pandemic.
It can join the countries “that appear to have braked the coronavirus,” he said. “But it risks, heaven forbid, a slide toward those countries that already have thousands of dead.”
“In the past day in New York, someone is dying every four minutes,” he said.
Noting US President Donald Trump’s warning that the US faces 100,000 to 250,000 deaths in the next few weeks, Netanyahu said: “That’s the lighter forecast.”
In Israeli terms, “that would be equivalent to 5,000 dead here.”
“We’re starting to see signs that maybe… we’re on the path to gaining control of the pandemic,” he concluded, “but it’s too early to say that with certainty.”