Police on Sunday shut down two of Israel’s most popular open air markets, despite assurances from the Prime Minister’s Office that appeared to signal they could stay open, as authorities began to enforce strict new measures put in place to stem to spread of the deadly coronavirus.
At the same time, reports indicated that police will not act to close down some religious ceremonies with up to 20 people, twice the permitted number, and will not take action against individuals who venture outside their homes, despite strict rules forbidding going out except under certain circumstances.
The new directives went to effect Sunday morning, vesting police with power to enforce orders, though no actual mechanism to punish or prosecute rule-breakers. The rules, which allow “essential” services to remain open, have sown confusion among business owners and individuals regarding what was permitted.
On Sunday morning, police swept through Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market and Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, ordering food and produce stands to close in accordance with new emergency regulations against the coronavirus.
However, a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office Saturday had indicated any market that had been allowed to remain open until that point would still be allowed to remain open.
According to government guidelines, businesses that sell food supplies are allowed to operate, but store owners must ensure that shoppers stay two meters apart.
The Carmel Market and Mahane Yehuda have stalls that sell groceries and other food products, as well as bars and restaurants, which were shuttered by previous government directives.
The Carmel Market in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda usually draw large crowds of shoppers, which would put them in breach of government directives barring gatherings of people.
The Walla news site reported that police arrived at the Carmel Market and threatened to fine stalls that refused to close.
In a video circulating on social media, a senior police officer can be heard saying a decision was made to shutter the market, without clarifying where the directive came from.
“It was decided that the Mahane Yehuda and Carmel market should both be closed. There is a pandemic and it’s our job to stop it,” the unidentified officer said.
Ahead of the closure, the head of the committee that represents sellers at Mahane Yehuda, Tali Fridman, said Saturday: “This act means financial ruin for store owners in the market. It’s a severe and thoughtless blow to sellers.”
“The supermarkets on the city streets are much more crowded than the market. There are huge spaces here that allow people to stay two meters apart from each other,” Fridman said. “The government needs to internalize the fact that business owners are on a sure path to economic collapse.”
Internal police guidelines published by Hebrew media state that police can only exercise their authority against businesses in violation of regulations, and individuals breaching quarantine or the ban on crowds. The document states that police officers cannot yet levy fines because internal procedures have not been formulated and the reporting system is not in place, the Haaretz daily reported.
According to the reports, police will not enforce directives banning crowds of larger than 10 people in closed places at weddings or funerals, only stepping in if more than 20 people are there or if social distancing rules requiring enough space between people are not heeded.
Israel’s first fatality in the coronavirus pandemic, 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Aryeh Even, was laid to rest in Jerusalem overnight Saturday-Sunday. The funeral service at the Givat Shaul cemetery was attended by 20 mourners, and all were required to stand at a two-meter (6.5 ft) distance from one another, according to Channel 12 news.
The guidelines also indicate that police will not take action against individual rule-breakers who leave their homes, but rather those who congregate in groups. Only those breaking quarantine or refusing to disperse a group of over 10 people, with the exception of weddings and funerals, could face punishment.
According to Channel 13, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had voiced support for fining citizens who breach the rules, but Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit warned such a step would be “very problematic.”
According to the rules that went into effect Sunday morning, Israelis must remain at home, with exceptions made for buying essential food and medical supplies or seeking medical treatment. Other exceptions include attending demonstrations, aiding an elderly or ill person, blood donations, attending court hearings, seeking aid from welfare services, going to the Knesset, and attending religious services, including weddings and funerals or visiting a ritual bath (mikvah).
Israelis were permitted to exercise outdoors, with no more than two people together, and to venture out for short walks near their homes. The ban also limited the number of people who could drive in a car to two, unless they were members of the same household (this does not apply to “essential” errands, carpools of essential workers to and from work, and delivery services).
As of Sunday morning there were 945 people diagnosed with coronavirus in Israel. The Health Ministry said 20 people were in serious condition, two days after an 88-year-old man became the country’s first fatality in the global pandemic. The ministry also said 24 people were listed in moderate condition and the rest had mild symptoms.