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Small business owners vow to open Sunday in defiance of lockdown

‘Fear of fines? I’m afraid my landlord will throw me to the street,’ exclaims a worker; another says government stipends can’t even cover her rent

Closed store at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on June 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Closed store at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on June 3, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

An alliance of small business owners has warned they will defy a national coronavirus lockdown and open Sunday, saying they can no longer stomach the financial cost of government limitations.

The lockdown has drastically curbed public life, shuttered the education system along with many businesses and limited the right to protest.

The Facebook group leading the protest, “It won’t be fine” (in Hebrew, a play on “There won’t be a lockdown”), objects to the government’s handling of the pandemic and lack of a clear exit plan from the lockdown measures, which came into effect on September 18 to help battle Israel’s sky-high infection rates.

The group, launched by restaurant owner Tamir Barelko last month, has grown to over 63,000 members.

“Everything here is political and everyone is frustrated,” Barelko told the Walla news site on Saturday. “These poor businesses are not huge companies with a lobby. Let’s put pressure so there will be someone who will look out for small businesses.”

Barelko said he would meet Sunday with other businesses owners that will take part in the protest, but said some were already opening in defiance of the lockdown.

“The state is causing people to bend the rules [to make a living]. There’s no feeling that the leader will say ‘I’m with you,'” he said. “It’s all talk and people are collapsing.”

The country has seen an encouraging drop in virus numbers over the past week, but the director-general of the Health Ministry said Saturday the lockdown would likely not be eased in the coming week, signaling ministers could extend it for another week when they meet Tuesday.

Closed down cafes and restaurants in Tel Aviv, on September 22, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Earlier this week, Barelko sent a letter in the group’s name to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanding the closure of businesses be lifted.

“After the previous lockdown [small businesses] fought for their economic survival. In this lockdown, despite the time that has passed, it turned out that the state did not succeed in finding a solution to the problem.”

Among business owners who said they would open Sunday was Cheli Mohoni, a cosmetician in the central city of Kfar Saba.

“I’m a mother of two girls. With the stipends they give me I can’t get anywhere. I can’t even pay the rent,” she told Walla.

While expressing apprehension about violating the virus guidelines by opening, Mohoni said it was a matter of survival.

“Why do I need to be afraid of receiving my customers if we observe the rules and have masks? Besides a lockdown, the government isn’t doing anything and isn’t improving the health system,” she said.

Roi Cohen, a lawyer, slammed the government for not allowing businesses with up to 10 employees who don’t receive customers to open, while permitting gatherings of 10 people in enclosed spaces.

“There’s no reason to make such a delusional decision,” he told the Israel Hayom daily.

Sagi Blank, a dog trainer in Rishon Lezion, also said he would resume work Sunday.

“In my field, there are those who really need our services. Fear of fines? I’m afraid my landlord will throw me to the street,” he told the newspaper.

A man sleeps on a public bench next to closed shops on Hillel Street in downtown Jerusalem on September 23, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown.(Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The promises to reopen came after Finance Minister Israel Katz harshly criticized the government’s coronavirus lockdown policy this week, saying the indiscriminate closure would unnecessarily drive millions of Israelis to hunger and despair.

“I will not let millions of people sink into the despair and the disgrace of hunger because of the Health Ministry’s incorrect decisions — to close the entire economy without any distinction [between different buisnesses] and without any health justifications,” Hebrew language media quoted him as saying Wednesday. He was speaking during a meeting at the Treasury to formulate a plan to hand out grants to citizens who have been unemployed for long periods due to coronavirus.

Katz protested what he called a lack of enforcement in high infection areas, and instead, the imposition of a blanket closure on the whole economy.

The Prime Minister’s Office hit back at Katz, of the premier’s own Likud party, accusing him of trying to garner votes at the expense of the public’s health.

The exchange came after weeks of disagreements between the Finance Ministry, health officials and Netanyahu himself on how to stem Israel’s coronavirus infection rate while attempting to minimize damage to the economy.

The Bank of Israel estimated Wednesday that each week the country remained closed, without at least reopening businesses that do not receive customers, will cost the economy about NIS 2.8 billion ($822 million) and will leave 400,000 people unemployed. It also estimated that around 195,000 people work at places with less than 10 workers.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Sunday it was reported that Katz, Economy Minister Amir Peretz and Science Minister Izhar Shai all supported reopening many businesses, as well as permitting preschools to open so that parents of small children are able to go to work, immediately next week.

Netanyahu has pushed back against calls to reopen quickly, and last week warned ministers that some of the restrictions of the current coronavirus lockdown may last months or even up to a year.

Health Ministry officials have also urged the government not to lift the lockdown measures until the infection rate has dropped dramatically.

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