Israel Police said Friday it had broadened its operations to fight the spread of coronavirus in the country, carrying out hundreds of inspections of venues throughout the country the previous night to ensure compliance with a ban on gatherings of over 100 people.
On Friday the Culture and Sports Ministry announced that all sporting events in the country would be stopped until further notice, joining the closures of schools, universities, theaters, many hotels and the cancellation of numerous events as much of the country receded out of the public sphere amid the threat of infection.
Also Friday the Prime Minister’s Office announced that Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting would be held in a video conference call.
Meanwhile, the status of a bus driver who had been hospitalized in serious condition from the COVID-19 infection improved Friday, medical officials said. The East Jerusalem man, 38, was now breathing independently and his status was downgraded to moderate. The man became sick after driving a group of Greek tourists who were later found to be infected.
The number of sick in the country was at 126 Friday, having more than tripled over the course of the past week. Among the latest cases were a six-month-old baby and four children and teens from a single family. The mounting cases have led ministry officials to estimate that thousands of Israelis could already be infected without being diagnosed.
The Health Ministry on Friday introduced a new feature to its map of potential exposure spots, allowing users to input an address to view nearby danger zones which had been visited by sick individuals.
Police said the vast majority of businesses they visited Thursday, including event halls, clubs, restaurants, bars and more, were found to be in compliance with restrictions. Action was taken against 14 locations that were in breach of government guidelines.
Officials said enforcement action would continue over the weekend.
They said a task force was also carrying out random house visits to quarantined individuals to ensure adherence to isolation protocols. So far 21 criminal probes have been opened against individuals who broke quarantine.
The Israel Defense Forces issued new, more restrictive guidelines to army personnel, canceling all reservist units’ training drills until after the Passover holiday in April, limiting indoor gatherings to 100 people and outdoor gatherings to 500 people, banning units’ activities outside bases and instructing medical personnel to avoid gatherings of over 15 people.
Synagogues throughout Israel were expected to limit attendance to 100 people during Shabbat, as per Health Ministry instructions, with some splitting up worshipers to several locations to avoid crowding. Shuls with cramped spaces were expected to further limit attendance to prevent close contact between congregants. People at higher risk were instructed to pray at home.
At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, authorities were limiting entrance to an enclosed area and set up tents that accommodate up to 100 people. But the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which oversees the site, said there would be no restrictions on worship in the main plaza as it constitutes a “wide, open space.”
The nation’s schools and universities were also closed as of Friday morning until further notice, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the public to “refrain as much as possible from gatherings in general.”
Though preschools and kindergartens had been set to open, hundreds of teachers in those institutions are reported to have called in sick, in an apparent protest at the decision not to keep them shut as well. The Education Ministry asserted, however, that 85 percent of preschools had opened as usual.
Across the world, authorities have canceled sporting events, theater productions, TV show tapings, concerts and anything that draws a crowd in a frantic effort to keep the virus from spreading in places where people congregate.
The closures are just the latest blow wrought by a series of measures that have seen public life in Israel and around the world contract significantly in the hopes of cutting down meetings between people and chances for the virus to spread.
The travel industry is continuing to reel from a near-all encompassing ban on incoming tourists. Some 100 hotels throughout Israel were closing to visitors, according to Hebrew media reports Thursday. Another 100 hotels were expected to close on Sunday, according to the reports.
On Thursday, Netanyahu called the pandemic “a global event unlike anything” the country had seen. He warned that “the potential number of deaths is very high and we must take action to prevent that.”
He said Israel’s efforts were focused on slowing the spread of the virus so that it doesn’t cause masses of ill people to require medical attention at the same time and overwhelm the health care system.
He called on his political rival, the Blue and White party headed by Benny Gantz, to join him and immediately form a temporary emergency government following a year-long political deadlock. Gantz has indicated a willingness to do so, though the terms of such a government were not immediately clear.
The new restrictions were announced as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.
Worldwide, there have been some 134,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and nearly 5,000 deaths.
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 Thursday at 8 p.m., unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.
The quarantine measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel had become the first country in the world to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.