The high-level coronavirus cabinet voted on Thursday to begin lifting lockdown restrictions starting on Sunday, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the decisions could change if infection rates rise over the weekend.
Ministers agreed to lift the limit on Israelis traveling more than one kilometer from home unless for specific permitted purposes; allow them to visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors); reopen preschools and daycares; allow restaurants to serve takeout; permit businesses that don’t receive customers to open; allow Israelis to visit beaches and national parks; and reopen the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound for worship under certain restrictions.
Speaking to reporters after the decision was approved, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Israel still had a long way to go to curb the virus.
“There is still a long road ahead and we will do it together,” he said.
Edelstein said virus numbers will likely rise slightly every time the government lifts some restrictions. He said the government may be forced to pull back and pause the gradual exit from the lockdown if infections spiral, but added that he “very much hopes” that doesn’t happen.
Despite the planned opening of daycares and preschools, Edelstein expressed concern about a potential outbreak there.
“We are very worried about a possible rise of infections in preschools,” he said.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the plan won’t be implemented if cases rise beyond 2,000 daily or if the basic reproduction number (measuring transmission of the disease) is higher than 0.8.
Other lockdown restrictions — including the closure of schools and commerce and caps on gatherings to 10 indoors, 20 outdoors — remain in force.
Finance Minister Israel Katz said the new decisions would “allow a large part of the economy to return to work, prevent a NIS 13 billion ($3.8 billion) loss and curb unemployment.”
Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli said the return of preschools was a welcome development, as “the percentage of cases [in them] is near zero.”
But Interior Minister Aryeh Deri reportedly left the ministerial meeting angrily, after his proposal to allow weddings with up to 200 guests was rejected by the prime minister.
“It’ll lead to a terrible tragedy,” Netanyahu was quoted by the Ynet news site as responding to Deri.
Hebrew media reports said the prime minister specifically took issue with mass weddings in Arab communities, which were blamed for an uptick of virus cases last month in Arab-majority cities and towns. An official representing the Arab community in the meeting also expressed his opposition to allowing large weddings, warning it would lead to a surge of infections.
“I represent the Jewish people,” Deri shot back, according to the reports. His office later said the quote was “imprecise.”
“Minister Deri said he represents a broad public for whom this issue is important,” his office said. Deri is the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.
Deri’s proposal angered some of his colleagues, with an unnamed minister accusing him of caving to pressure by his ultra-Orthodox constituents and dragging the country to a potential third lockdown. The network said other ultra-Orthodox members of government also privately criticized Deri’s conduct.
Meanwhile, state-subsidized daycare centers complained about the lack of notice, saying they would be able to resume operations by Monday at the earliest, possibly Tuesday.
Earlier, the prime minister hailed the lockdown as a “tremendous success.”
“They’re starting to talk about this success in other countries, particularly in Europe, where morbidity has already overtaken us in several nations. They are now deliberating the same question we decided on — whether to enact a lockdown.”
He said the country was seeing “a clear and consistent decline in all the [infection] data.” But he said the reduction of lockdown limitations would need to be carried out carefully and responsibly to prevent a new surge in infections.
Health officials have stressed they would buck pressure to quickly reopen the economy.
The first phase of reopening after a month-long nationwide closure is part of a Health Ministry plan for a gradual, several-month exit based on epidemiological benchmarks.
Israel has been under a national lockdown for the past month to contain a raging second wave of the pandemic, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. Recent days have seen both the number of daily cases and the percentage of positive tests go down amid the sweeping restrictions on the public. The death toll is rising, however, crossing 2,000 on Sunday — just five weeks after it passed 1,000.
Health Ministry figures published Thursday morning showed 2,004 new cases were confirmed throughout Wednesday, just over the 2,000 mark below which authorities have determined that lockdown measures can start to be eased. However, the target number of 2,000 daily infections — along with a positive test rate of under eight percent and a basic reproduction number of less than 0.8 — must be met as a daily average for an entire week, and it wasn’t clear when exactly those criteria would be met.
Ministers were discussing separate exit plans for cities with low and high infection rates. Shortly before the meeting, several cities were taken off the list of places with particularly high morbidity rates, where many restrictions are expected to remain in place while other parts of the country reopen.
Restrictions on flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport were to be lifted on Thursday night, as per a government decision Wednesday.