Stores, synagogues, school: Ministers meet to thrash out post-lockdown reopening

Treasury said pushing for earlier opening of shops amid rapid drop in infections, but health officials are opposed; ministers likely to okay limited prayer in houses of worship

People walk in downtown Jerusalem on October 28, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
People walk in downtown Jerusalem on October 28, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The so-called coronavirus cabinet was set to meet Thursday morning to continue mapping Israel’s exit from its second national lockdown, with ministers expected to debate reopening places of worship and stores.

A main issue of contention was whether to allow stores to reopen, with the decision likely to also affect synagogues.

Finance Minister Israel Katz met Wednesday with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein in a bid to work out a plan for allowing storefronts to resume business, but the meeting ended without any agreement, according to Hebrew media reports.

Katz is pushing for all stores to be allowed to reopen next week, but Edelstein opposes doing so at this stage.

Israelis sit in the streets in the Levinsky market in Tel Aviv, on October 28, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Under the current virus restrictions, gatherings of up 10 people are allowed indoors and up to 20 outdoors, though synagogues and other houses of worship are barred from opening.

Earlier this month it was reported that some ministers were expected to demand that synagogues be reopened if stores were allowed to operate.

However, reports on Wednesday said that synagogues may be allowed to reopen as soon as Sunday.

According to a report by the Kan public broadcaster, Edelstein has dropped his opposition to allowing synagogues to reopen, on the condition that attendance indoors is capped at 10 and outdoors at 20.

Police officers arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during a raid on a synagogue that was opened against the coronavirus emergency regulations, in the Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem, October 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A separate report from Channel 12 news said that outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu has signaled he won’t oppose the reopening of synagogues.

Ministers may also discuss plans for the reopening of elementary schools, which have become muddled amid complaints regarding the approved format for splitting first and second grade children into pods.

On Wednesday, the Education Ministry proposed having all classes in first to fourth grades go to school four days a week, adding a day for grades 1-2 but shaving one off grades 3-4.

Schools and many businesses have been shut since September 18, when Israel began a lockdown aimed at suppressing the rapidly spreading virus, which had turned the country into a global COVID-19 hotspot.

Preschools reopened on October 18, and ministers in the coronavirus cabinet on Monday night approved the reopening of schools for children in first to fourth grade early next week.

They also okayed the lifting of a series of other restrictions aimed at containing the pandemic. They also approved the reopening of hairdressers, beauty salons and other businesses that serve a single customer at a time starting on Sunday.

According to the Health Ministry’s nine-stage lockdown exit plan, business openings would only occur at the third stage, set for November 15 at the earliest.

A steep drop in cases, however, has led many to seek a quicker rebound than the Health Ministry advised.

Following the initial coronavirus lockdown in the spring, health officials abandoned their staged plan amid pressure from ministers and opened nearly all schools and businesses at once in early May. That move has been blamed for playing a part in runaway infection rates over the summer, which multiplied when schools opened on September 1.

The Health Ministry said on Thursday morning that 688 new coronavirus cases were confirmed a day earlier, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 312,787.

There were 464 COVID-19 patients in serious condition, 199 of them on ventilators, and 104 in moderate condition.

The death toll remained at 2,494, the ministry said.

There were 33,295 tests carried out on Wednesday, with 2.1 percent returning positive.


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