Police moving to increase enforcement of social distancing rules

Officers conduct surprise visits to individuals in quarantine as well as businesses; ‘vast majority are following the instructions,’ says senior official

Illustrative. Police stand guard in Jerusalem in an undated photograph. (Israel Police)
Illustrative. Police stand guard in Jerusalem in an undated photograph. (Israel Police)

The Israel Police said Tuesday it was scaling up its efforts to enforce social distancing to keep the coronavirus from spreading.

The announcement came after the government approved unprecedented new surveillance measures overnight in a bid to better track the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Israeli population.

In a briefing with journalists, police officials said they have begun enforcing three new measures set down as emergency decrees by the government: self-isolation orders, the requirement to register with the Health Ministry after returning from abroad, and the prohibition on public gatherings.

Police did not yet have the power to enforce the instructions publicized on Tuesday that dramatically upped the demands of social distancing on Israelis, including not leaving home except to buy food or medicine, and prohibiting visits to beaches, malls and parks.

The new rules were technically only “lawful instructions,” police officials said. Violating them is not a crime. The Health Ministry said it was working on a formal decree that would make the instructions legally mandatory.

Magen David Adom worker wears protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, arrives to test a patient with symptoms of COVID-19 (coronavirus), in Jerusalem on March 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

But violations of these measures can already be prosecuted under previous government decrees, and police said they have begun to launch criminal investigations of offenders.

“We’re operating under the Health Ministry and responsible for the enforcement aspect” of the national effort to stem the spread of the virus, a police official said.

Violating a self-quarantine order carries a maximum punishment of up to six months in prison and an NIS 5,000 ($1,300) fine. Failing to register with the Health Ministry after returning from overseas carries an NIS 3,000 ($780) fine. And refusing to disperse a gathering of over 10 people carries the same NIS 3,000 fine.

In all, 72 cases were opened by Tuesday afternoon over violations of one or more of those orders.

Passengers on the light rail in Jerusalem, March 17, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Police and the Health Ministry, aided by manpower borrowed from the Environment Ministry’s specialized environmental police, have begun enforcing self-quarantine orders with phone calls and surprise home visits to Israelis who should be in isolation.

The home visits are currently happening at a rate of about 40 a day, the official said. Tens of thousands of Israelis are in home quarantine.

Local police districts are also carrying out home visits targeting individuals who entered the country in recent days but failed to register with the Health Ministry, to ensure they are complying with the directive for them to self-isolate in their homes.

In the briefing to reporters Tuesday, police officials said these efforts have found that the vast majority of Israelis — “95 percent to 99% of the relevant populations” — were “obeying the self-isolation orders.”

At least 1,000 visits to businesses have also found few offenders. “The vast majority are following the instructions. There were only five extreme cases [of violations] in which we had to act to shut down the business,” an official said.

Workers disinfect the Bar Kol Supermarket in Safed, March 16, 2020, as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Police also said nine investigations have been launched into individuals spreading false information about the virus and the government’s instructions on social distancing, some in an allegedly purposeful attempt to sow panic.

The official also tried to calm concerns over the new powers given to the security services to track Israelis’ movements.

The tracking would be “sampling only,” the official said, “and will begin only after we get the attorney general’s approval. The police commit to holding the information until the end of the crisis, and then to erase the data.”

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