'We are at war with an invisible enemy, but we can beat it'

All leisure venues closing as Netanyahu tells Israel: Adjust to new way of life

Cafes, malls, preschools among places to cease activities as public urged to stay 2 meters apart; invasive monitoring tech to help track infection paths of sick individuals

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an speech at his Jerusalem office on March 14, 2020 (GALI TIBBON / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an speech at his Jerusalem office on March 14, 2020 (GALI TIBBON / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and government officials on Saturday announced a shutdown of all leisure businesses and activities throughout the country, with the premier pressing upon the public the need to “adopt a new way of life” for the coming weeks and possibly months as the country deals with the new coronavirus — and particularly underlining a guiding principle of individuals maintaining a distance of at least two meters from others at all times.

The premier also announced that authorities planned to begin using invasive monitoring technology to help track potential infection paths of sick individuals.

Sunday morning will see public life further diminished, with the closure of all cafes, restaurants, hotels, malls, movie theaters, gyms, event halls and the like. It was implied that all nonessential shops would close, though not specifically stated. But Netanyahu stressed that supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and other essentials services would continue to function.

Sunday will also see the closing of preschools, kindergartens and daycares that had remained open on Friday amid a closure of all educational institutions.

Furthermore, the government announced a new restriction on gatherings of over 10 people in the same place. There were no new restrictions announced on public transportation; Netanyahu said this matter was still under discussion.

A school bag lies in front of a school in the central coastal city of Netanya on March 13, 2020, after schools and universities in Israel were ordered to close as part of measures to contain the coronavirus. (Jack Guez/AFP)

For non-leisure workplaces, the prime minister said work would continue, but all employers were urged to encourage work from home wherever possible.

“This is a battle for public health,” Netanyahu said at a press conference from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. “We are at war with an invisible enemy…We are adjusting as things develop. The situation is dynamic.” But, he said, “we can beat it.”

Comparing the situation several times to a state of war, the premier said it was imperative for Israelis to change gears and “adopt a new way of life” for the near future, noting that many Israelis appeared not to be heeding officials’ calls to avoid physical contact and displays of affection, but stressing that this was crucial for the nation to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The two most important issues, he said, were “personal hygiene” and keeping distance from each other. “A distance of two meters. This will protect us. It is very hard [but] it will help us stop infection.”

He stressed that authorities “will continue to ensure crucial services to the market. First and foremost on food — because there was a rush on supermarkets. We have more than enough stocks…including for Passover. There is no justification for [panic].”

Over the weekend Israelis flooded supermarkets to stock up amid fears the country could enter a lockdown and goods could run out — though officials repeatedly assured the public that there was no such danger.

Israelis line up outside Rami Levy supermarket in Ashdod on March 14, 2020 (Flash90)

He added: “There will be no shortage of medicine. Pharmacies will continue to work. Banks will continue to work. ATMs, all these services.”

And “anything that has to do with trade, production, services will continue, but with limitations…to maintain the distance of two meters.”

Whoever didn’t have to go into work, shouldn’t, he said — in order to ensure the two-meter “social distancing.”

Notably, Netanyahu also said the government would move to use invasive digital monitoring measures to track the movements of sick individuals, which had previously been employed against terrorism.

An empty cafe in the Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv on March 13, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He said the measures, which he didn’t specify but acknowledged carried with them problematic privacy implications, would allow authorities to know who had come into contact with people infected with the virus. He said the Justice Ministry had been consulted on the proper use of such measures among the general public.

According to media reports the technology involved cellphone tracking.

“Up until today I avoided using these measures in the civilian population but there is no choice,” he said. He added that “There is a certain invasion of the privacy of those people, where we will check who they came in contact with, including while sick, what came before that, what came after. It gives us a very, very effective tool to locate the enemy, to locate the pathogen and to try and isolate it instead of isolating the whole country.”

He said the technology “was tested in Taiwan, apparently with great success. Israel is one of the only countries with this ability and we will use it.”

Netanyahu repeated on several occasions that he was aware of the harshness of the means being employed but said Israel’s tough measures had so far proven themselves, with many countries in recent days following in the steps of the Jewish state in their efforts to contain the virus.

He also repeated his call for a unity government with Blue and White, as well as with ally-turned-nemesis Avigdor Liberman.

Benny Gantz, right, and Avigdor Liberman shake hands after a private meeting in the central city of Ramat Gan, on March 9, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

“It can get worse, even much worse, before it gets better. For that not to happen we’ll need resources. So far we’ve been able to keep within the budget, I’m happy to say. This won’t last… we’ll need a special budget for the coronavirus,” he said.

“Such steps are very difficult to make in a transitional government. We need to stabilize the country in a unity government.”

Both Blue and White and Liberman and his Yisrael Beytenu party have stated their willingness to enter into a unity government to confront the crisis, though there are still said to be key differences between the parties as to what shape such a government would take.

People flood a supermarket in Ashkelon on March 14, 2020 amid fears of food shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic. (video screenshot)

The number of Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus rose to 193 Saturday evening. The Health Ministry said two of the sick remained in serious condition, with 11 in moderate condition and the rest suffering a light illness only. Meanwhile, nearly 40,000 Israelis were in home quarantines for fear of exposure to the virus, including nearly 1,000 doctors, more than 600 nurses, 170 paramedics, and 80 pharmacists, according to Health Ministry figures. Health officials have conducted over 6,800 coronavirus tests nationwide so far, according to the ministry.

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals were barred from entering the country as of March 12, unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The number of coronavirus cases worldwide passed 150,000 on Saturday driven by a spike in infections in Italy, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources.

Italy announced 3,497 new cases on Saturday, bringing the global total to 151,797, with 5,764 deaths across 137 countries and territories.

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