Pandemic not behind us, next few days are a test, warns Netanyahu

Decrying ‘loosening’ adherence to rules, PM says directives are clear, more discipline needed; 25 new cases recorded in 24 hours

Israelis enjoy a day at the beach in Tel Aviv on May 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis enjoy a day at the beach in Tel Aviv on May 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Saturday of “a steep increase” in new coronavirus infections in Israel in recent days, but said it was too early to tell whether there would be an upward trend that would warrant the reimposition of closures.

Israel has had some important successes in fighting the global pandemic, Netanyahu said during a televised statement, but the crisis “is not behind us.”

“We put out the flames of the coronavirus but there are still embers, and any light wind could reignite these flames,” the prime minister said.

The Health Ministry on Saturday evening said that a sharp dip in coronavirus infections was recorded over the past 24 hours, with just 25 new confirmed cases. The announcement came as authorities were voicing concerns about a possible new COVID-19 wave after a spike in new infections over the past several days, including 121 cases between Friday and Saturday morning.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a televised statement at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on May 30, 2020. (Screen capture: YouTube))

Israel currently has 1,917 active cases, with a majority under medical care at home and just 116 in hospital. Of those cases, 36 are in serious condition with 34 requiring mechanical ventilation. In Israel, 284 people have died of the virus since the outbreak reached the country earlier this year.

Previously, Israel had seen weeks where new diagnoses hovered at around 20 or less a day. Friday’s announcement marked the first time that the 100 mark has been breached since May 2. That lull allowed Israel to relax most lockdown restrictions meant to stop the spread of the virus.

Condemning what he termed a “loosening” of Israelis’ adherence to social-distance rules, Netanyahu on Saturday said the coming days will be a “test” to see whether restrictions will need to be put back in place.

“As long as no vaccine is found for the virus it will return and spread if we aren’t meticulous about the rules,” Netanyahu said. “If we don’t do this, there will be no choice but to return to limitations on the economy and public sphere.”

Israelis enjoy a day at the beach in Tel Aviv on May 29, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The three key rules, he reiterated a number of times, are wearing masks in public areas, keeping physical distances of at least two meters, and taking hygienic measures such as consistent hand-washing.

Netanyahu said ministers decided against shuttering the education system amid the uptick in cases, but called on Israelis, including himself and members of his government, to show more discipline.

He warned that the government will look to increase enforcement of the rules by taking action against places of business that violate the “purple badge” directives under which shops, malls, restaurants, bars, and other establishments were allowed to reopen this week after some two months of closures.

Netanyahu also said Israelis will be encouraged to get tested more widely.

Magen David Adom medical workers at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing in Jerusalem on May 30, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the address, Finance Minister Israel Katz presented a new finance ministry plan aimed at encouraging employers to take back employees placed on unpaid leave during the height of the pandemic in March. For every employee called back, places of business will receive a grant of NIS 7,500 ($2,141) starting on June 1, according to the plan. An additional grant of some NIS 3,500 ($1,000) will be handed out to employers for employees called back in May.

Katz said some NIS 500 million ($142 million) have been allocated for businesses that would put employees back to work.

Education Minister Yoav Galant, meanwhile, said “coronavirus supervisors” would be appointed in schools to allow authorities to act more quickly should there be an infection outbreak.

The surge in new coronavirus cases is largely centered on a Jerusalem school, the Gymnasia Rehavia, where a “super-spreader” student was said to have infected over 100 people, according to a Channel 12 report. All the students and staff are in the process of being tested.

The school and at least 16 others are expected to be shut temporarily as ministers convened on Saturday to discuss potential closures to stem the spread. The ministers decided against a suspension of the education system as a whole, opting to close schools only where infections have been recorded.

A picture shows the entrance to the Gymnasia Rehavia high school in Jerusalem on May 29, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Paula Ben Gurion elementary school in Jerusalem announced on Saturday that it would not open until Tuesday at the earliest due to concerns that a large number of students had siblings who attend the Gymnasia Rehavia high school.

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the staff and parents’ committee indicated that a decision on reopening would not be made until testing was completed at Gymnasia Rehavia.

Israel on Saturday reopened four drive-through testing stations across the country to step up the search for confirmed patients. The first one to reopen was at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium parking lot, which prioritized testing the remainder of the Gymnasia Rehavia school. The testing stations at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park and in Beersheba and Haifa also later restarted operations.

Health officials are concerned that fewer people are getting tested. Though at the height of the pandemic around 13,000-14,000 people were being tested every day, those numbers have dropped considerably in recent weeks as fewer people experience symptoms.

Speaking on Friday, the Health Ministry’s outgoing Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov attributed the growing number of cases to an “atmosphere of euphoria and complacency” among Israelis who were “not observing the rules.”

People sitting at a restaurant at the Carmel market in Tel Aviv on May 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“Unfortunately the disease is still here. Neither the heat nor the Israeli humidity caused it to disappear and therefore the measures are still in effect,” he said. “The atmosphere of weakening [adherence] among the Israeli public is out of place.”

Bar Siman-Tov warned the path was “short” to having hundreds of new cases a day and from there to thousands of new infections, but said a potential second wave of the virus “depends solely on our behavior.”

He called on Israelis to refrain from visiting their grandparents, saying it was better to speak with them by videoconferencing apps such as Zoom.

The fresh warnings came as Friday saw tens of thousands of people flock to nature and beaches amid pleasant weather, and as Israelis increasingly emerge from months of lockdown. Parks officials at the Sea of Galilee said beaches were full to the brim with visitors.

TV reports also showed large crowds of Israelis enjoying the Shavuot festival with parties at nightclubs late Thursday.

Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, said 31 schools across the country had been identified as “centers” of the new cases.

“It’s clear to us unfortunately that the conditions at schools… don’t allow for non-infection of coronavirus,” she said.

Also during the press conference, Bar Siman-Tov was asked if they were currently in favor of a reimposing a lockdown for two weeks, to which he responded no.

“It’s possible, but at the moment we’re not there,” he said, stressing the press conference was “to again call on the public to observe the rules.”

He added that reimposing restrictions on public transportation was not currently being weighed.

Despite the uptick in cases, the government said Thursday that higher education institutions and youth groups would be allowed to operate from Sunday, under Health Ministry restrictions.

With recent weeks seeing a sharp drop-off in the number of new virus cases, the country has lifted restrictions on movement, businesses and educational institutions.

Restaurants, pubs, hotels, pools and other establishments began opening up and hosting patrons Wednesday, after authorities gave the go-ahead to ease pandemic restrictions and allow some of the last businesses remaining shut to reopen.

Also Friday it was reported that some 30 children in a preschool in the migrant community in south Tel Aviv, as well as three staff members, were ordered into quarantine Thursday after a child was diagnosed with the virus. Recent days have seen children in several schools and preschools in central Israel sent to quarantine after infections were diagnosed among pupils.

And at Hadera’s Hille Yaffe Medical Center, 41 health workers entered quarantine after two nurses caught the virus.

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