Israelis prepared to welcome the Jewish New Year Friday with a new deeply unpopular national coronavirus lockdown, amid expectations of serious financial harm to many businesses and fears of civil disobedience in response to a measure widely regarded to be the result of failed government policies.
Some 7,000 policemen and soldiers, backed up by local municipality personnel, are set to deploy throughout the country to enforce the closure that begins at 2 p.m. and is set to last at least three weeks.
Ahead of the start of the lockdown, the Health Ministry released data showing that infection rates remained sky-high for Israel’s population size, with 5,238 cases identified Thursday — keeping the country near the top of the global list of daily infections per capita.
The figure is far higher than the 1,000 daily cases the Health Ministry is aiming for before it will consider lifting some of the lockdown measures, which will see movement restricted, leisure sites closed, and the education system shuttered, among other limitations.
The lockdown will generally keep Israelis within one kilometer of their homes through the Jewish holiday season, with a long list of exceptions — from work and shopping for essentials to exercise and aiding the elderly. Schools and most shops will be shut, and large gatherings and all leisure activity will be banned. Travel between cities will be limited.
Though the restrictions are less stringent than some of those imposed during the first national lockdown in March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Thursday night in a televised statement that “there may be no choice but to tighten the restrictions” further.
He urged the public: “Wear masks and avoid gatherings.”
“The more this is done, the less there is a need for stringent measures,” Netanyahu said. “Those two steps are more important than any measures we impose.”
The new sweeping restrictions have faced widespread opposition by the public: from religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews, because they will impact public prayer services during the High Holidays; from business owners, because of the loss in trade; and from the general public, because the closure of the education system will force many parents to miss work as they stay home to care for young children.
Critics have blamed government mismanagement and petty politics for the raging pandemic, pointing to the government’s too-swift reopening of the country in May, its failure to set up efficient contact tracing measures, its reluctance to shut down infection-heavy locales earlier in the summer and haphazard, ever-changing and often confusing public guidelines.
Reports have proliferated in recent days that health officials are doubtful the three-week lockdown will significantly bring down infections, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein admitted Thursday that it would not be enough to stem the latest outbreak, though he hoped it would at least stop the rate of increase.
The leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, tweeted Wednesday: “The people responsible for the terrible failure in dealing with the coronavirus are putting us all under house arrest. They themselves don’t believe it will help. The lockdown is an admission that they’ve given up, are helpless. We are paying the price.”
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman — who has previously urged Israelis not to listen to the health regulations — said the lockdown was “illogical.”
Edelstein, meanwhile, said Thursday: “I am not inclined to lie or deceive the public. It’s possible that it will take time, or that we will need to tighten the lockdown until we see a drop in infections.”
President Reuven Rivlin, in a primetime address to the nation on Wednesday night, also lamented the government’s mixed messaging on the pandemic.
And Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai condemned the government’s “schlemiel [incompetent] leadership,” in an interview with Army Radio on Thursday.
Experts have also criticized the plan, with doctors union chief Hagai Levine calling it the “stupidest and most hazardous solution.”
Former Health Ministry director general Gabi Barbash, speaking to Channel 12 on Wednesday night, predicted the policy would not successfully drive down infection rates.
“If you’re gonna do a lockdown, you have to lock it down completely,” he said.
Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy has said he is “pained” by the lockdown, but that there was no alternative to relieve the strain on the healthcare system.
Israel is the first advanced country to impose a second lockdown, though many Western nations have seen a new surge of virus cases in recent weeks, and some are considering fresh restrictions.
On Friday morning the country’s total coronavirus tally stood at 176,933, of which 46,370 were active cases. Patients included 577 in serious condition (153 of whom were in ventilators) and 240 in moderate condition.
The death toll stood at 1,169, with no new deaths recorded since Thursday night.
Of the 55,697 tests analyzed Thursday, 9.4 percent came back positive.
On Thursday night the government released an updated list of “red” areas with high infection rates. The list includes 88 localities, among them Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Lod, Netanya, Safed, Petah Tikva, Rishon Lezion and parts of Jerusalem.
The lockdown is the first element of the government’s three-part strategy: It is expected to last three weeks at least, dependent on situational assessments, and to be followed by several weeks of somewhat eased restrictions (including freer travel within cities but not between them, allowance of gatherings of up to 50 people, grater numbers allowed at workplaces) and finally a return to the so-called “traffic light” model in which cities will be dealt with based on infection rates.
On Thursday night hundreds of people demonstrated against the lockdown in Tel Aviv, railing against government policies they said had crashed the economy while failing to curb the pandemic.
There has been concern that the government could encounter widespread resistance and rebellion against the new measures, both by members of the public who have lost trust in policies and may ignore the restrictions, and by small businesses that have suffered financially and fear they will not survive a new closure.