Restaurateurs threaten to defy 'illogical' government order

Restaurants shut again, for now, amid chaotic power struggle over virus closures

Late-night talks over health minister’s compromise fail, meaning eateries must close for dine-in service from 5 a.m, but Knesset lawmaker says she’ll open them again at 10 a.m.

Israelis sit bars and retaurants in Jerusalem, on May 27. 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis sit bars and retaurants in Jerusalem, on May 27. 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Restaurants across the country were closed again from 5 a.m. Tuesday as a government coronavirus order went into effect, taking breakfast off the table. Brunch, however, was still a maybe.

After several days of chaotic, bungled attempts to limit eateries to take-away and delivery service only, the situation was still murky Tuesday morning, with a lawmaker threatening to overturn the cabinet decision after just a few hours and restaurateurs warning of open revolt.

The initial closure order was announced early Friday morning and was to take effect at 5 p.m. that day. But many restaurants vowed to stay open, panning the short notice they were given, after already having spent large sums to stock up for the weekend. The pressure led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to backtrack at the last moment and push off the planned closure from Friday to Tuesday morning.

The last-minute about-face had also been met with frustration from many restaurant owners, who said they had let go of staff and destroyed food in preparation for the closure.

But desperate restaurateurs, warning they faced complete economic ruin and railing against inconsistent government decisions, continued to threaten to defy the government and keep their establishments open.

In a bid to reach a compromise, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein presented a plan that would allow restaurants to serve up to 30 people in outdoor seating. But in talks that went to midnight Monday with MK Yifat Shasha-Biton, chair of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee that must approve these measures, they failed to reach an agreement.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

Shasha-Biton, from the ruling Likud party, has already proved a thorn in the side of the government when she reversed a government order to close outdoor swimming pools and gyms last Sunday.

Her committee also voted Monday to keep pools and beaches open on weekends, contrary to a cabinet decision last week that would see those locations included in weekend closures aimed at halting a recent surge in infections.

Shasha-Biton was demanding that restaurants also be allowed to serve people indoors up to 35 % capacity, similar to what hotels are permitted.

When both she and Edelstein refused to budge, the original decision went into effect and eateries had to close from 5 a.m. But Shasha-Biton promised she would order them reopened when her committee convened at 10 a.m Tuesday morning, saying the government decisions were unreasonable.

“I don’t understand how decisions are made. I fear that we are losing the public who don’t understand the logic of what we are doing,” she told the Ynet website.

The Coronavirus Committee was on Sunday given data on 1,474 cases of contagion traced by the Health Ministry; only 10 of them originated in restaurants. The data, however, represented only a fraction of the recent cases, with most sources of infection still unknown.

Opposition chief Yair Lapid slammed the government’s actions.

“I wouldn’t let them run a felafel store, never mind the government,” he tweeted Tuesday morning. “Such disrespect for the restaurant owners and workers, for peoples’ livelihoods. Such a lack of understanding and chaos.”

Meanwhile, some restaurant owners, including prominent chefs and owners of well-known eateries in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, continued to threaten to keep their businesses open on Tuesday and beyond.

“Until they communicate the reasons for the closure, until they present data and give us a horizon for compensation, I am not closing,” chef Asaf Doktor, who owns three Tel Aviv restaurants, told Channel 12 on Sunday.

Restaurant and bar owners were planning to hold a “protest” meal for the needy outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday.

“We are going to Jerusalem because we understood the government isn’t caring for us,” Doktor said. “They’re closing us on a whim, without data backing it up, without logic. We are alone.

“So we will go to Jerusalem to hand out food to the needy, because soon we will be needy too. Solidarity will save us from collapsing.”

Chairs outside a fast food restaurant on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on July 17, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Some restaurateurs are said to be demanding that the government agree to compensate them in advance, in exchange for compliance with the law. They have reportedly made various proposals such as reducing property taxes and other levies, payments to quarantined workers and more.

“The decision to close restaurants is ridiculous and illogical. There is no scientific study that shows high infection rates in restaurants, but the opposite,” another rebel owner told the Ynet news site, preferring to remain anonymous.

Tomer Mor, who heads the group behind the protest, said that “restaurateurs from all over the country are helpless and see their businesses closed while they have to provide for their families. There is great frustration driving people to action to save their livelihoods.”

Earlier this month, the Health Ministry released a document ranking daily activities in terms of their danger of exposure to the coronavirus which listed dining at indoor bars and restaurants as a high-risk activity.

Israelis smoke water pipes at a bar in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market on July 7. 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Friday morning, Hagai Levine, head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, criticized the government for ordering restrictions “without any epidemiological basis” and making the decision to close beaches starting next week, noting the virus was likely to spread in closed areas rather than in open ones.

“National security is also mental and economic health,” Levine, an epidemiologist with the Hadassah School of Public Health, told the Kan public broadcaster. “A lockdown in homes can achieve the opposite goal and increase infections.”

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