Quarantine hotels set to open for ultra-Orthodox as fight against virus steps up

Authorities expand efforts in Haredi community after figures show they account for around half of COVID-19 patients; Bnei Brak rabbis urge public to cooperate

The Dan Hotel in Jerusalem that was converted to receive coronavirus patients, March 17, 2020.  (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The Dan Hotel in Jerusalem that was converted to receive coronavirus patients, March 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Three hotels and yeshiva buildings were preparing Monday to open as special quarantine centers for the ultra-Orthodox community, as the government and religious authorities stepped up the fight against the spread of the coronavirus in densely populated Haredi areas.

Ultra-Orthodox patients make up around half the COVID-19 patients being treated in various major hospitals around the country, according to unofficial figures cited by the two leading Israeli news channels on Sunday evening.

The reports came amid officials’ growing impatience with the ultra-Orthodox community, some of whose members have appeared to flout government orders restricting public gatherings, movement and activities — imposed in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, which has so far infected upward of 4,000 Israelis.

Two hotels were being prepared to start housing ultra-Orthodox patients on Tuesday, with two more such hotels set to open at a later date, Channel 12 reported Monday morning.

The hotels will cater to that community’s needs, including food with strict kosher supervision and gender segregation.

It wasn’t immediately clear where the hotels were being set up. The Jerusalem Municipality said Mayor Moshe Lion had been instructed by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to open two hotels in the city’s west and two in its east, indicating they were also meant to house members of the Arab community, many of whom live in similar density to the ultra-Orthodox. Channel 12 indicated hotels were set to open in the cities of Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh.

The initiative came after officials understood it was extremely hard to create effective quarantine in Haredi-majority cities and neighborhoods, which are tight-knit and densely populated, with large families packed into small apartments.

Jewish ultra-Orthodox girls wear face masks during celebrations of the Jewish festival of Purim in Bnei Brak, March 10, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Since the Health Ministry’s strategy for relieving some of the burden on hospitals has been to require home quarantine of many virus carriers showing mild or no symptoms, the solution was needed to create effective isolation that is impossible to achieve in many Haredi neighborhoods.

Additionally, another isolation center will be opened by the Bnei Brak municipality in an empty building that normally houses a religious seminary. It has been converted into a guesthouse with private rooms and regular meals.

At first that building will house dozens of people who haven’t tested positive for the virus but are required by the Health Ministry to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning from abroad or being near a confirmed carrier. Later, it will house hundreds of people.

The new compounds were welcomed by Bnei Brak’s top rabbis, who published a call for residents to cooperate with the efforts. Authorities hope that will stop the current rapid spread of the virus in those areas.

The cabinet on Sunday held a lengthy discussion how to encourage stricter adherence to virus-related restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri, left, speaks with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman during a meeting in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

During the meeting Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was tapped as the government point man on the issue, according to Channel 12.

The cabinet was set to hold another meeting to vote on further restrictions on movements and the economy on Sunday evening, but it was pushed off to Monday.

Ministers were expected to approve, via teleconference, the deployment of hundreds of soldiers to enforce lockdown rules and could also green-light further curbs on the economy, or even order a full lockdown of the country.

Channel 13 reported that ministers will also consider the Health Ministry’s urging of a total lockdown on the entire population for the first night of Passover next week, when Jews customarily hold large festive meals, known as seders, with extended family and friends.

The reports came after the Finance Ministry’s director-general said the government is considering imposing a full quarantine on the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak and other predominantly ultra-Orthodox areas amid the sharply rising number of coronavirus cases in those places.

“We’re having quite a few problems with ultra-Orthodox society, in places like Bnei Brak,” Shai Babad told the Knesset’s Special Committee on Dealing With the Coronavirus on Sunday.

He added: “Some of the [cabinet] deliberation was talking about how we could maybe succeed in putting a lockdown in place and isolating those same areas.”

Bnei Brak has seen the second highest number of infections in the country, according to Health Ministry figures, after Jerusalem, where the coronavirus has also spread through the community.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray outside a closed yeshiva, in the town of Bnei Brak, on March 26, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Officials have attributed the high infection rates in the area to a lack of adherence to Health Ministry guidelines — there have been many reports of large gatherings taking place in those communities for weddings, prayer services and other events in spite of announced restrictions — crowded conditions in many ultra-Orthodox communities, and a lack of access by many to media and communication means.

In the most recent large-scale violation of government orders, hundreds of people took part in a funeral procession in Bnei Brak early Sunday, jamming closely together in contravention of social distancing rules as police looked on without taking action. The force later defended the decision by saying a clash with the participants could have brought thousands to the streets and that it was therefore preferable to let the crowd disperse on its own.

A prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi on Sunday told The Times of Israel that Israeli media were trying to “slur” Haredim by creating the impression that they are responsible for spreading the coronavirus.

As of Sunday evening, 4,247 people had been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, including 74 in serious condition, the Health Ministry said. Of the serious cases, 59 were attached to ventilators and another 82 people were in moderate condition. There have been 15 deaths from the virus.

Under Health Ministry orders, Israelis are only supposed to venture out for supplies, to go to work, or for short periods of time straying no further than 100 meters from their homes. There is a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people and social distancing has been set for two meters at all times.

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