Three hours after some 10,000 polling stations on Monday morning opened their doors across the country for Israel’s 6,453,255 citizens eligible to vote, 16 specially equipped voting booths opened their tent flaps for the 5,630 voters who were under home quarantine due to precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Israel.
So far, 10 Israelis have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelling all Israelis recently in these areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The Israelis are, however, allowed out of quarantine in order to vote in the special polling stations. But they must take special precautions such as putting on face masks before they exit their vehicles and trying to make the trip to the voting station without being accompanied by others who are not in quarantine. They are also prohibited from stopping on the way to and from the voting stations.
Additionally, anyone who shows symptoms of the disease is forbidden from using even the special voting stations, the Health Ministry warned on Sunday. Those hospitalized can use special voting procedures already in place for patients.
Israel does not allow absentee ballots.
The first voter to arrive at a special polling station just outside the central Israeli city of Modiin was Yishai Akker from nearby Givat Shmuel, who has been in quarantine since returning from a five-day family skiing trip to Italy on Friday.
“It feels hysterical. It feels over the top. But we will respect it,” he said of the voting booth still being set up as a small queue began to form behind him.
The polling stations, located in the cities of Jerusalem, Safed, Afula Illit, Haifa, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Holon, Beersheba, Ashkelon, Eilat, Rosh Ha’ayin, Modiin, and Kfar Saba, are each made up of two small tents with an adjoining window: in one tent sit Magen David Adom paramedics, specially trained for Monday as polling administrators; in the other, visible through the transparent plastic, the ballot box sits on a table behind a blue screen.
As voters arrived, they were greeted by polling staff wearing full protective gear who asked them to temporarily take off their face masks and checked their identity against their Israeli identity card.
Then, after each applying anti-bacterial hand gel, the voters were given a specially prepared pack with a new face mask and gloves to wear while voting.
The votes, which are being placed in a specially lined ballot box, will be sent to the Central Elections Committee, where they will counted by staff also wearing protective gear.
Asked if he was worried about contracting the virus from other voters, Akker said, “That’s why we wanted to be first. So that we wouldn’t be in contact with others or materials touched by others.”
“But,” he adds, “we didn’t want to give up on the right. This is my son’s first time voting.”
Seffi Akker, who turned 18 last month and therefore was unable to vote in the two elections that took place in 2019, said the experience was “crazy but fun.”
“You can’t tell, but I’m smiling under my mask,” he joked.
When the polling station eventually opened, some 15 minutes late, some 30 people were already lining up to vote, all wearing face masks and, perhaps due to the masks, not all looking too happy.
“It’s been very difficult at home,” said Ayala Cohen, who had been quarantined at home since last week with her husband Eitan after the couple returned to Israel from a trip to Australia via South Korea two weeks ago.
“They only changed the rules to include us five days after we got back but it’s not easy being stuck inside all day,” said Eitan. “It’s great to get out, but we have to go back after this.”
Itzik Majar, who was also ordered into quarantine after returning from a skiing trip in Italy, said both the quarantine and voting in the special booth were “a surreal and bizarre experience.”
“Time will tell if this is an exaggeration but it feels like a lot,” he said, adding that the special voting process added to the belief held by many that those in quarantine were infected with the virus.
“We are not sick,” Majar said. “But people believe anything.”
With police and medical authorities on alert Monday for attempts to disrupt the elections with fake coronavirus reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged citizens to go to the polls and telling them not to fear contracting coronavirus.
“I urge the citizens of Israel to go vote. This is a great democratic right and we should be proud of it,” Netanyahu said after voting in Jerusalem, in a normal polling station.
“We have done everything we can against the coronavirus. Everything is under control and we have taken every possible measure. Don’t believe fake news, you can vote with determination and confidence,” he said.
On Sunday, Netanyahu’s chief rival in the election, Blue and White party leader MK Benny Gantz, accused the prime minister’s Likud party of spreading fake reports about the coronavirus to suppress turnout on election day among supporters of his centrist alliance.
Gantz was referring to news reports that parts of a mall in the Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim were closed due to suspicions that a shopper was infected with the virus. In the previous elections in September, 50.32 percent of votes cast in Givatayim went to Blue and White, while 17.32% went to Likud.
Responding to the accusation, the Likud party issued a statement asserting that “Gantz is talking nonsense.”
“A vaccine for the coronavirus will be found before [Gantz] finds a way to form a government without [Joint List MK] Ahmad Tibi.” Likud wrote on its Twitter account.
For Majar, politics took precedent over any fear surrounding the virus.
“The chance of the wrong person leading the country is worse than coronavirus,” he said, before making his way back home for the rest of his time in quarantine.
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