As country opens up, officials said to predict spike in new infections

TV report claims Netanyahu agreed to quietly to avoid any tough actions on Haredi health violations; cops said to resist handing out massive fines to institutions opening illegally

The city center of Jerusalem, October 20, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
The city center of Jerusalem, October 20, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

A senior Health Ministry official said Tuesday that experts were predicting the downward slide in new coronavirus cases will halt and Israel will see a spike in new cases due to non-compliance with virus guidelines.

“We expect a significant rise in infection in the next seven to 10 days. With the level of violations we are seeing, there’s no escaping it,” the unnamed source told Channel 12 news.

Meanwhile, the network reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had quietly agreed with his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners to avoid any tough action on Haredi health violations, while publicly taking a strong stance on the matter.

While the prime minister will level harsh rhetoric against lockdown violations, in practice he will coordinate enforcement with ultra-Orthodox leaders behind the scenes, the report said, without citing a source.

In terms of enforcement, the report said authorities will not do anything without the knowledge of ultra-Orthodox leaders, in order to preserve the ruling coalition, headed by Netanyahu’s Likud, which depends on ultra-Orthodox political parties.

The health source warned Channel 12 that current plans to open up more school grades and businesses could be put off should new infections rebound.

“Parents need to pray that infection figures go down,” the source said.

Earlier Tuesday, ministers voted to lift increased restrictions from nearly all locales that had remained under Israel’s high-infection classification in recent days. The move means only the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo will remain a so-called red zone, with special restrictions beyond those in the rest of the country.

A source close to Netanyahu, meanwhile, told several TV networks that the possibility of nightly curfews was being considered should virus cases spike again. The move, which was tried to little effect in some hot spots last month, would be intended to prevent large gatherings at night.

The curfews would likely last from midnight until 5 a.m., Channel 12 reported.

The network also reported that police officials had resisted calls to hand out fines of tens of thousands of shekels to institutions that violate guidelines, after many ultra-Orthodox schools opened this week against government restrictions.

Top cops were said to tell ministers it was unreasonable for officers to be asked to hand out fines of NIS 50,000 ($15,000), which were proposed by coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, as this would be emotionally difficult for them to do. They suggested the courts should handle such large fines.

The network said in light of police opposition, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein had proposed lowering fines to NIS 10,000 ($3,000) for those hosting gatherings, including at weddings and schools. Repeat offenders, though, would see rates rise to NIS 50,000.

Magen David Adom emergency service workers outside the coronavirus unit at the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital in Jerusalem, October 19, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The opening of the education system and policies toward ultra-Orthodox communities have become the main sticking points in Israel’s reopening.

There has been growing public anger at the defiance shown by some in the ultra-Orthodox population toward health regulations amid the pandemic. Sunday saw hundreds of Haredi schools open up in violation of the rules, after a leading rabbi instructed them to do so. The move was backed by a leading ultra-Orthodox legislator Sunday evening.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen a disproportionately high number of virus cases. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were among the ultra-Orthodox, though they constitute only approximately 12% of the population.

A poll published Sunday found that most Israelis believe political considerations are the leading factor in the government decision-making process as it seeks to bring the country out of its latest national lockdown.

Police guard at a temporary checkpoint in the entrance to the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on October 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health and Education Ministries traded barbs Tuesday over policies amid heated disagreements among officials over plans to open elementary schools.

An Education Ministry source told Walla news that the Health Ministry was not being forthcoming with the reopening of the school system.

Education officials have said they will not split first and second grades into pods, but the Health Ministry has rejected allowing schools to reopen without them, leading to a possible delay in sending off kids until next month.

The source told Walla it was the Health Ministry that had initially okayed opening the grades without capsules, and argued it would not make a significant difference at that age.

“Every week we get a different set of answers which don’t match up between what appears in the press and what is written down, and which change from person to person. We don’t understand if this is a part of the ministry’s plans,” the source told Walla.

The Health Ministry fired back, saying, “It’s easiest to find excuses.”

“Even without the coronavirus, every parent in Israel knows the education system was not ready for smaller classes,” the source added. “Even 100 reforms won’t help. The virus just exposed the existing ills in the system.”

Clalit Health Services workers take swab samples for preschool and daycare staff members at a drive-through coronavirus testing site in the central city of Lod, October 16, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

New figures published by the Health Ministry on Tuesday night showed the number of new coronavirus cases diagnosed since midnight was at 759, even as testing levels remained high.

The death toll has continued to rise though, with another 8 fatalities bringing it to 2,278 since the start of the pandemic.

There are currently 22,856 active cases, of which 616 are in serious condition. The number of people on ventilators climbed slightly to 234.

The ministry said only 2.9 percent of over 27,000 tests so far had come back positive Tuesday, one of the lowest figures in months, though not a final tally.

Edelstein said Tuesday that he will bring to ministers a proposal to increase some fines against those who violate lockdown restrictions.

“The virus can spread rapidly just like it can decline rapidly,” Edelstein said during a visit to Poriya Medical Center in Tiberias.

“There is a gap between the coronavirus cabinet’s cautious decisions and what happens on the ground, with violations on the part of educational institutions and businesses. Therefore we will bring to the coronavirus cabinet a proposal to severely increase fines,” Edelstein said.

On Monday, Edelstein admitted that authorities were falling short in their mission to keep schools from operating in ultra-Orthodox areas.

The decisions to lift some restrictions came a week after the Sukkot and Simhat Torah holidays, prompting concerns of an outbreak in ultra-Orthodox areas, where gatherings were common and numerous violations were recorded. These lockdown violations may not yet be reflected in the official data.

The lockdown, Israel’s second since the start of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, sharply brought down daily infection rates but paralyzed public life for many.

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