Three major shopping malls opened their doors Thursday as they made good on a threat to break a national lockdown ordered to curb the coronavirus outbreak that has left most stores shuttered for over a month.
The malls, located in the central cities of Bat Yam and Petah Tikva and the northern city of Karmiel, applied their own health standards for reopening while aiming to prevent the sites from becoming virus infection hubs.
They were allowing in people 60 and over if they’ve received both doses of the two-shot Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; people under 60 who have received the first shot; those who have recovered from COVID-19; those who have tested negative in the past 72 hours; and those under age 16.
Though police went to all three locations to enforce the lockdown, they mostly ordered store owners to close up rather than issuing fines, Hebrew media reported.
The revolt was called by a forum that represents over 400 mall owners, chain stores, small businesses, and executives from the restaurant, tourism, hotel, and entertainment industries. Though the forum had urged for many more stores and other malls to open, only three eventually complied.
In Bat Yam, store owners closed when police arrived at the mall but said they would reopen their doors as soon as the officers left, the Kan public broadcaster reported.
Channel 12 News reported that in Bat Yam most stores did not open although some were trying to operate a takeout-type system to accept orders from customers.
After police arrived at the malls to shut down stores, the forum sent a letter to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai, notifying that they were petitioning the High Court of Justice against what they claim is selective enforcement.
In a statement, the forum alluded to recent funerals in the ultra-Orthodox community that, though grossly violating lockdown orders on public gatherings, were allowed to go ahead without police enforcement. They also referred to a report that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had specifically called on police to crack down on the malls if they went ahead with their threat to open.
“After hearing the prime minister demand aggressively enforcing [the lockdown on] only us, and after turning a blind eye to funerals and mass weddings in other sectors, we see that the government has decided to continue to discriminate against us,” the forum said. “We will not allow the prime minister to sentence to death hundreds of thousands of ailing businesses.”
The chair of the Association of Fashion and Catering Retail chains in Israel, Shahar Turgeman, who backed the rebellion against the lockdown, visited the Bat Yam mall where he urged stores to open, Channel 12 News reported.
He said that stores will not pay any fines issued.
“I do not see a judge imposing fines on us when we show him where there was morbidity and where there was no morbidity, where there was enforcement and where there was no enforcement,” he said apparently referring to high infection rates in the ultra-Orthodox community.
In a related development, Defense Minister Benny Gantz demanded that the coronavirus cabinet, which sets government policy in dealing with the virus outbreak, convene later in the day to approve the use of what he called the Green Badge system by next week.
The document, issued to those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, will enable holders to access public activities and venues that are currently closed under lockdown orders.
On Wednesday police officials had told Channel 12 they would issue high fines and lengthy closure orders for shops that defied the lockdown.
In recordings from a cabinet meeting aired by the station, Netanyahu was heard telling law enforcement to “enforce aggressively.”
The lockdown, now in its fifth week, has shuttered numerous businesses and public venues, as well as almost the entire education system. Though some restrictions were rolled back at the beginning of the week, most stores and commercial centers remain closed.
Businesses have complained that the government has forced them to shut for extended periods while failing to provide sufficient financial support. Thousands have closed down throughout the pandemic and unemployment levels remain high.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Wednesday warned businesses and municipal authorities that have threatened to revolt against the rules that the government would not hesitate to apply fines, which were recently doubled.
Separately, the Health Ministry on Tuesday presented ministers with a plan to gradually reopen the economy, based on infection and vaccination rates, that could see gyms, malls and hotels open to the vaccinated on February 23.
According to the draft presented to ministers, the economic restart will be split into three stages. The proposal envisions reopening gyms, malls, hotels and other sites in two weeks’ time to the vaccinated and those with a negative coronavirus test, and coffee shops and restaurants to the general public by early March. Ministers have yet to vote on the proposal.
The coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday evening approved the reopening of some school grades in areas with low to medium infection.