Seven shopping malls throughout Israel opened Friday morning in violation of coronavirus restrictions, after threatening to do so a day earlier.
Malls belonging to the Azrieli and Ofer groups opened in Petah Tikva, Ramat Gan, Beersheba, Modi’in and other locations.
Malls have been closed since mid-September under lockdown rules. Street-front stores have recently been allowed to reopen, with a cap on the number of customers, which was raised from four to 10 on Wednesday.
Tuesday saw open-air shopping malls throughout the country also reopen, leading to anger by managers of closed shopping centers and complaints that they were being discriminated against.
Friday’s opening saw dozens of shops reopen in the malls. Malls have stressed they are taking all precautions while opening, limiting any crowding and following all health guidelines enforced elsewhere.
“There are guards here whose entire role is to maintain the coronavirus rules,” Guy Keren, head of the Ofer Kiryon mall in Kiryat Bialik told the the Ynet news site.
Omri Paran, the owner of a clothing store in the mall, said he was warned by police not to open, but did so anyway. “For two months already we’ve been sitting at home and everyone is working besides the malls,” he told the news site.
He also asserted that malls haven’t been permitted to reopen because they lack political sway.
“If you don’t make a commotion and try to behave nicely, it doesn’t work. You need to conduct yourself in a forceful manner,” Paran said.
The move comes after plans for a pilot to reopen malls fell through in recent days, reportedly due to disagreements between government ministries as to how it would be run.
According to Channel 12 news, mall groups have portrayed the move to open as the result of pressure from shops, but stores have said it is the shopping centers that have pushed to reopen, promising them to cover any fines.
According to the Walla news site the public was not quick to flock to the illegally operating locations Friday, and traffic was relatively sparse. The report said police had begun enforcement actions against the locations that had opened against health regulations.
Friday also saw stall owners at Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market hold a demonstration, protesting that they have been forbidden to open while many stores and strip malls go back to work.
On Thursday Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said he was increasingly concerned about the necessity for a possible third national lockdown in Israel to contain the coronavirus, warning against further easing of restrictions until an additional drop in infections.
“I see morbidity rising, I see we’re continuing to [re]open, I see malls deciding on their own to open without any guidelines,” he told Channel 12 news. He said if such patterns continue, “a third lockdown will probably arrive.”
Kisch, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, appeared to criticize the pace at which restrictions put in place during the second national lockdown were being lifted.
“We have dropped the policy of not opening before we see morbidity declining,” he said.
Meanwhile, the director-general of the Health Ministry was asked if there would be a lockdown during the Hannukah holiday, which this year runs from December 10-18.
“I don’t know if there will be a lockdown during Hannukah,” Chezy Levy said during a press briefing. “I definitely do know that a rise in morbidity can lead to the return of restrictions, or new restrictions, and we are seeing a rise in morbidity.”
According to Levy, the basic reproduction rate — the average number of people each virus carrier infects — is currently over 1.0, when 0.8 had been defined as the threshold beyond which restrictions would stop being eased.
A reproduction rate above 1.0 means the number of active cases is rising rather than declining. Despite these warnings, Levy said a pilot plan for reopening malls would soon be launched.
The high-level coronavirus cabinet is set to convene Sunday to discuss further steps.
According to the Health Ministry, 758 new coronavirus cases were recorded Thursday, which along with another 108 cases so far on Friday brought the number of infections in Israel since the pandemic began to 327,435.
The death toll stood at 2,742.
Of the 8,454 active cases, there were 318 people in serious condition, including 123 on ventilators. Another 86 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
The Health Ministry said 55,003 tests were performed Thursday, 1.4 percent of which came back positive.
Ministers were scheduled to convene Friday afternoon to declare local lockdowns in areas with high infection rates, with the northern city of Nazareth reportedly set to see further restrictions, after a recent in new cases there.
Nazareth, which has around 77,000 residents, currently has the second-highest number of active cases of any city in Israel, behind only Jerusalem, which has a population of over 900,000.
Ministers on Wednesday declared the northern city of Arraba a “restricted zone,” subjecting it to stricter limitations to contain the virus. Arraba currently has one of the highest per capita infection rates of any locality in the country, according to the Health Ministry.