Israel’s roads saw major congestion Monday morning as many commuters returned to work following the holiday weekend despite a nationwide lockdown, with police choking off main traffic arteries by setting up checkpoints and closing off roads.
Under the rules of the lockdown, workplaces in the private sector that do not serve customers in person may keep 100 percent of their workforce coming into offices, and essential workers and others are also expected to continue to be allowed to move around, despite restrictions imposed starting Friday that are meant to limit travel in most other cases to within one kilometer of home.
Dozens of police roadblocks were set up across the country to enforce travel restrictions and make sure only those who were permitted were on the street.
By 8 a.m. there was heavy congestion reported on parts of the Ayalon highway, a major intercity route that traverses the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. There were also jams on Route 4 and Route 2, which connect Tel Aviv to the northern and southern coastal regions, as well as Route 40 near Ben Gurion Airport.
Traffic was also reported on roads in the north and in and around Jerusalem.
In one instance, a Times of Israel correspondent reported passing an intersection in the capital where police had cordoned off a major road, funneling drivers onto an already congested alternate route, though no cars were being checked.
Police decided at the start of the lockdown to deploy 38 roadblocks on intercity routes around the country that will be adjusted to allow traffic to flow, but also will see drivers pulled over at random to check they are permitted to be out on the road.
Despite the checkpoints, traffic reports showed lower than usual traffic volume, indicating that many were indeed staying home and complying with the lockdown. Parts of the normally jammed Ayalon freeway saw traffic flowing with a volume normally seen on weekends.
Acting police chief Motti Cohen held a situation assessment on Sunday night to review lockdown enforcement over the two-day Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Jewish New Year which fell on Saturday and Sunday.
“Overall, in the recent days we see that the public kept to the regulations and alongside that there were a few unusual incidents that were immediately dealt with by police,” Cohen said.
The travel restrictions are part of a three-week lockdown that went into effect on Friday afternoon and is aimed at halting a spiraling rate of coronavirus infections.
Further restrictions are being considered and the so-called coronavirus cabinet of relevant ministers is set to meet Tuesday to discuss the matter, Hebrew media reported.
Some 7,000 policemen and soldiers, backed up by local municipality personnel, were deployed throughout the country to enforce the closure using roadblocks and patrols, amid concerns that an exhausted and exasperated Israeli public will be far less cooperative with the new sweeping restrictions than during the initial wave of the pandemic.
Police figures show that during the first 48 hours of the lockdown 2,802 fines were issued to citizens, 2,044 of which were for activity outside the home or being outside for an unauthorized reason.
National coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, who is said to be against applying further restrictions until the current measures are given time to work, urged Israelis on Monday to nonetheless stop attending protests, another exempted activity, a day after thousands of people gathered for a weekly protest outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem.
Gamzu has resisted speaking out about the open-air protests in the past, and studies have claimed to show that they are not a source of a significant number of infections.
Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster Gamzu said, however, that attendees could easily get sick or spread the infection. He added that the demonstrations are setting a bad example for the rest of the population, which may reconsider adhering to restrictions on public gatherings.
“We need to prevent it as much as possible; that is critical for all of us,” Gamzu said when asked if the demonstrations should be stopped. “At the moment, you need to understand that it is used as a sign for others.”
“People in another sector of society see that demonstrations are being held and say to themselves that you can gather people in a similar way in every other place in the country,” he said. “There will be time for demonstrations afterwards.”
“Every day that we have 5,000 cases diagnosed. Take into account that it means 25 people dying,” Gamzu warned. “It is also young people, it is ravaging the country.”
Health Ministry figures on Monday showed that there were 2,565 new virus cases diagnosed on Sunday, bringing the number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 188,427. The figure was lower than recent days, and may have been the result of fewer tests run over the holiday weekend. Figures showed close to 11 percent of tests were confirmed positive.
Of the 51,180 active cases, 1,295 people are hospitalized with the virus, including 643 patients in serious condition with 170 on ventilators. The death toll stood at 1,256, with only six deaths recorded Sunday, well below the 24 deaths the day before.
Gamzu’s comments appeared to be aimed at members of the ultra-Orthodox community who traveled for the Rosh Hashanah holiday and returned Sunday night home under the guise of traveling to a protest.
Friday also saw a protest held at the beach in Tel Aviv, in which protesters partied and danced at the otherwise off-limits venue while shielded by rules protecting protests.
The new lockdown is simultaneously more permissive and more complex than the weeks-long closure imposed earlier this year, with numerous directives and exceptions to those directives seeming to cause public confusion as to what is and isn’t in fact allowed.
Police said in a statement that most activity will focus on enforcing regulations and in particular on preventing gatherings and limiting travel. Police said they will also continue to enforce quarantine rules and the wearing of face masks in public and maintaining regulations in the work place.
The closure went into effect on Friday and is expected to last at least three weeks.