Grades 1-4 in schools, houses of worship, beauty salons, and bed and breakfasts reopened on Sunday as Israel continued to roll back some of the coronavirus restrictions under a gradual exit plan from the country’s second nationwide lockdown.
Some 500,000 children across the country were heading back to class in separated capsules of up to 18 kids and will be required to wear masks throughout the day and eat their meals outdoors or spaced far apart from one another, according to a coronavirus cabinet decision reached on Thursday. The separate pods will be mixed back together during afterschool care programs — a directive that has bewildered and angered parents.
Children in first through fourth grade will study in school for at least four days a week, with several local authorities saying they would allocate funds to open schools for five days a week.
Education Minister Yoav Gallant addressed the issue of inequality on Sunday morning, saying it was a difficult situation.
“It is impossible to ignore the fact that there are places in Israel that are able to do more by virtue of their budget. The health constraints together with the budget constraints dictate a certain situation, and we do our best,” he told the Kan public broadcaster.
Those in fifth grade and above will continue remote learning.
Schools will remain shut in the virus hotspots of Bu’eine Nujeidat and Majdal Shams in northern Israel but kindergartens there will continue to operate.
Schools have been closed since September 18, when a nationwide lockdown came into force to drive down infection rates, though preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen on October 18.
The latest moves — the second stage of reopening in a six-part plan — comes as Israel sees the lowest positivity rate of coronavirus tests since June.
The reopening of schools in May, after the first nationwide closure, and again in September, was blamed for the uptick in virus cases around the country. Many ultra-Orthodox schools for boys reopened earlier this month in defiance of the government rules. Since the start of the pandemic, synagogue worship has also been linked to the spread of the virus.
In a further easing of the health rules, bed and breakfasts were allowed to resume business starting Sunday, but only nuclear families can stay together in the vacation homes, and renters cannot use public pools or dining halls in the homes’ communities.
Hairdressers and beauty parlors were also allowed to reopen on Sunday, and some “one-on-one” activities may restart, including driving lessons and personal fitness training.
The new rules came into effect at 6 a.m.
Meanwhile, street stores will remain closed at least until early next week, in a move that has outraged small business owners and merchants — many of whom have denounced the government’s handling of the crisis and say they are being victimized. Acknowledging this anger, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement Friday urging them to “cooperate for another few days” and promising further economic assistance.
The issue caused tensions on Friday during the coronavirus cabinet meeting that saw Finance Minister Israel Katz of the Likud clash with other officials, including Netanyahu, over the store reopenings.
Katz demanded stores reopen on Sunday, while Edelstein said the government should agree on lockdown decisions unanimously and stick to the reopening plan that called for easing measures every two weeks.
Some store owners and operators of stalls at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem have vowed to reopen despite the restriction, however.
Government ministers decided early Friday to move forward the reopening of synagogues to Sunday; synagogues were supposed to remain closed until November 15, according to the original reopening plan. The number of worshipers will be limited to 10 indoors, and 20 outdoors.
The Health Ministry’s nine-stage lockdown exit plan was also shortened to six stages.
Weddings, parties, organized trips and ceremonies are restricted to 10 participants indoors or 20 participants outdoors.
The reopening of street stores will only go forward if infection rates are below 500 per day, according to authorities. If daily cases remain above 500, shops will only reopen on November 15, the date set in the initial reopening plan. Malls and market areas will remain shuttered for the time being.
The decision to reopen street shops a week early was a compromise between the Health Ministry, which wanted to keep the stores shuttered until November 15, and the Finance Ministry, which wanted them reopened on Sunday.
Finance Ministry chief economist Shira Greenberg has estimated the cost of the continued restrictions on the economy at NIS 2.3 billion ($673 million) a week.
Most of the damage to the economy, she wrote, stems from the restrictions still in place on commerce and trade. This alone costs the economy an estimated NIS 1.4 billion a week, she said.
On Saturday, the Health Ministry announced 674 new cases of the virus had been diagnosed on Friday, out of 32,615 tests conducted.
Since the start of the outbreak, 314,422 people in Israel have tested positive for the coronavirus. There are currently 10,641 active cases. Of these, 409 patients are in serious condition, with 179 on ventilators as of Saturday night, according to the Health Ministry. Another 112 have moderate symptoms and the rest of the active coronavirus carriers have mild or no symptoms.
The national death toll stands at 2,539.
Israel imposed a monthlong lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but that also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system.
On Thursday Netanyahu again rebuffed persistent criticism of his handling of the crisis, and defended the government’s decision to apply the lockdown, saying the measure had saved lives.
In a televised statement delivered before the coronavirus cabinet reconvened to discuss further easing the lockdown measures, he declined to comment on his position regarding the reopening of street stores.
But the prime minister vowed that he would reapply local lockdowns in cities that have high infection rates.
“I will not hesitate to suggest to the cabinet to shut down such a city,” he said. “To cordon it off. No matter what segment of the population it is.”
Netanyahu had previously backed off imposing local lockdowns in ultra-Orthodox cities following pushback from the community’s politicians, whose support he relies on in order to maintain his rule.
Separately, the Defense Ministry on Sunday announced that the first human trials of its coronavirus vaccine will begin on November 1 and continue through the spring before it can receive approval for full use.