Top health experts say that Israel’s climb out of its coronavirus lockdown, tentatively planned to begin after Passover, will be done very gradually and the process will take months at least.
Schools and kindergartens, which have been closed for over a month, will likely be among the last places to reopen.
The cabinet was expected to approve Tuesday a closure and curfew over the Passover holiday, measures that come in addition to an ongoing partial lockdown that has closed many businesses except for those considered essential. Schools, parks, malls, cinemas and other non-essential sites have all been shuttered for the past month.
However, during a Monday press conference to announce the new measures, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did hint that some limits may be eased in the future, saying that if recent trends showing a stabilization of infection rates and seriously ill cases continues, “we’ll begin to gradually exit from the lockdown after Passover.” There is no date set yet for restrictions to be lifted.
The Health Ministry on Tuesday announced 395 new cases of the virus since the day before, continuing a downward trend in the number of new cases, though some of the drop may be attributed to lower testing rates. In Europe, both Austria and Denmark announced plans to begin opening up again later this month, while warning that restrictions could be snapped back in place if the downward trend is reversed.
Gabi Barbash, director general at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and one of the country’s top medical experts, speculated that the country would likely go through seven stages before it fully exits from the current restrictions.
Initially, and in a move spread out over several days, manufacturing factories will reopen on condition that workers are tested first for the virus, Barbash predicted. Only 50% are likely to be permitted to return at first, with the rest to come back in stages, he told Channel 12 news Monday.
In stage two, high-tech companies and startups would be permitted to resume operations in the hope that they can provide a boost toward economic recovery, Barbash said.
They would be followed by needed services that can maintain social distancing and hygiene regulations such as accounting, attorneys, and public service offices.
The fourth stage, which Barbash assessed would only be reached after a lengthy period, would be when stores and restaurants are allowed to reopen. However, he warned that even then activities at such places will be different from the way it was before the crisis, with stricter conditions on how they operate. Restaurants will likely be required to maintain distances between patrons. Malls and shopping centers will take even longer until they can return to normal, he warned.
It would only be at that point that schools and kindergartens would reopen, Barbash forecast, in stage five. He explained the reason they would likely open so late in the process is because they are “infection repositories,” as was shown in other countries around the world. In addition, Israeli classrooms are particularly crowded and it is difficult to arrange only a partial return to studies, he said.
Cinemas, theaters, museums and other culture centers will be among the last to reopen in the sixth stage, likely only after an extended period.
Last of all will be the resumption of air travel. On Monday, a Ben-Gurion airport official told store owners there that the airport would likely only return to normal operations in July at the earliest, and even then, there will be many fewer daily flights than before the crisis, according to Channel 13 news.
Barbash predicted the process would take several months at least.
His remarks were in line with an assessment by Nadav Davidovitch, head of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University, who is, among others, working to formulate a plan that will be presented the National Security Council.
Davidovitch told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday that because the infection rate in Israel is stabilizing, “we can think about an exit strategy.”
Like Barbash, he predicted a phased return to work for the economy and said various strategies are under consideration. There are number of expert teams working in parallel to prepare strategies for the NSC, he said, adding that he is a member of one.
Options being looked at are a return to work for four days, followed by ten days of work from home. Like Barbash, he said schools would not return in the early stages although there is some consideration to permitting 11th and 12th graders to begin studies in order for them to be able to take their matriculation exams on schedule. He said the ideas are only suggestions that have been made to the National Security Council, and are not yet a formal strategy.
One marked change in the future will be that Israel will no longer be considered a single unit for public health issues, he predicted, with lockdown tailored to areas where breakouts occur.
“We can expect lockdowns on specific areas,” Davidovitch said.
Epicenters of disease will be identified in the same way that Bnei Brak, neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other places have been during the coronavirus pandemic. Bnei Brak, which has one of the highest infection rates in the country, has been declared a restricted zone and entry to and from the ultra-Orthodox city of 200,000 is being controlled by police checkpoints.
“Bnei Brak is a case study” for future closures of certain areas, he assessed.
“The division of the country into sub-units, even to the level of a neighborhood…these are tools that must be available,” Davidovitch said.
The expected lockdown over the holiday will tighten the emergency directives currently in place, with Israelis already banned from venturing more than 100 meters from their homes. Exceptions are made for work and purchasing essential supplies.
Netanyahu said Monday the earliest that those ongoing restrictions would be rolled back is after the holiday of Mimouna, which immediately follows Passover.
“There is a realistic chance that if the trends continue, we’ll begin to gradually exit from the lockdown after Passover and Mimouna,” he said. “It depends on you. It depends on the fulfillment of the tough directives… Don’t get complacent.”
He said that when that easing of restrictions comes, it will be done on a phased basis, with those who are most vulnerable required to stay in isolation long after those those who less vulnerable are allowed out.
As of Tuesday morning there had been 60 deaths in Israel from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Over 9,000 people are infected, according to Health Ministry figures, with 153 of them seriously ill.
Some European countries have already begun to plot out a pathway to easing restrictions, notably Denmark and Austria.
Denmark said Tuesday it will gradually lift restrictions starting with the reopening of daycare nurseries, kindergartens and primary schools from April 15. Austria said a day earlier that it would ease some of its restrictions, with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warning that this depended on citizens abiding by social distancing rules.
“The aim is that from April 14… smaller shops up to a size of 400 square meters, as well as hardware and garden stores, can open again, under strict security conditions of course,” Kurz said at a press conference.
In East Asia, though, some countries that had eased restrictions have snapped them back into place after a resurgence of the disease.
On Monday the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief said countries looking to exit their lockdown strategies need to use a “calibrated, step-wise approach” that does not release all the restrictions at once.
Ryan says that the lockdowns seen in many countries involve shutdowns of schools, workplaces, and social gatherings in venues such as public places and parks.
“It probably would be a bad idea to lift all the lockdown restrictions (at once),” Dr. Mike Ryan said, noting that countries should not be looking to transition out of a shutdown without having a plan in place to keep the spread of COVID-19 to manageable levels.
“The lockdown is pushing the disease down. Once you raise the lockdown, you have to have an alternative method to suppress the infection,” Ryan said, explaining countries should have systems in place to detect cases, track contacts, quarantine suspect cases and test widely for the disease.
“If countries rush to lift restrictions too quickly, the virus could resurge and the economic impact could be even more severe and prolonged,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned last week.
Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.