Tel Aviv, Eilat downgraded to ‘yellow’ cities as infection rates rise

Health Ministry reports further increase in basic reproduction rate, signaling an acceleration in the spread of the pandemic; IKEA fined for reopening in defiance of regulations

Israelis at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on December 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israelis at Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv, on December 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Health Ministry on Sunday reported rising coronavirus cases in Tel Aviv and Eilat, downgrading them from “green” to “yellow” cities due to an increase in their per capita infection rates.

Under the government’s “traffic light” system, “green” cities have the lowest rates of infection. Those with the second lowest infection rates are “yellow,” followed by “orange” and “red.”

Tel Aviv and Eilat have per capita rates of seven and eight infections per 10,000 people, respectively, according to the latest Health Ministry figures.

It was not immediately clear how the designation would affect Eilat’s status as a “special tourist island” where coronavirus restrictions are lighter. Army Radio reported that ministers had not formulated a plan for infection rates rising in the city.

Cars are checked at a roadblock set up at the entrance to the Red Sea city of Eilat on November 18, 2020, after it was designated a “special tourism island.” (Flash90)

Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen told the Ynet news site that the data was being checked and suggested it could be partially attributed to high testing rates in the city.

“If the city turns ‘red’ we will have to go back to the coronavirus cabinet and make decisions,” she said.

The Health Ministry said there are currently 25 “red” cities and towns, all of which are Arab or Druze, that account for 24.6 percent of total infections in Israel. The 39 “orange” localities accounted for another 32.1% of total infections, while the 1,123 “green” areas made up 15.5% of all cases.

The ministry also reported that the basic reproduction number further rose to 1.24. The figure represents the average number of people each virus carrier infects, with a reading of over 1 indicating the pandemic’s rate of spread is growing.

The basic reproduction number was highest for Arab Israelis, who have recently accounted for a disproportionately high number of new infections relative to their share of the population.

Citing the rise in infections, the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center, a military task force, urged the government to consider reimposing some restrictions that have recently been eased.

“At the current growth rate, every two more days in which the infection rate is maintained, a day of full lockdown will be required to restore the situation to the outset,” the task force again warned in its daily report.

Separately, IKEA reopened its stores Sunday in a limited fashion, defying Health Ministry restrictions.

Municipal inspectors in Rishon Lezion later fined IKEA NIS 5,000 for opening its store there. The inspectors also warned customers that it was illegal to be in the store, according to Hebrew media reports.

The Swedish furniture chain was only expected to open parts of its local branches that sell “essential” goods, according to Hebrew media reports. Last month, the Health Ministry reportedly threatened to fine IKEA if it reopened, arguing it wasn’t an essential business.

Earlier Sunday, hundreds of thousands of students in grades 7-10 returned to class for the first time in over two months.

Grades 7-10 were the last students remaining at home since a second nationwide lockdown was imposed in mid-September. Starting late October, the government has gradually reopened the school system, permitting first younger students, and then high schoolers, to return to class several days a week.

The reopening of schools in May, and again on September 1, was blamed for a serious uptick in coronavirus cases around the country.

There were 986 new virus cases diagnosed on Saturday, the Health Ministry said in a statement on Sunday morning. There were 25,308 tests carried out with a 3.9% positivity rate. Testing levels tend to drop over the weekend.

The number of active cases stood at 13,189, of which 311 were in serious condition. The total number of diagnosed cases since the start of the pandemic stood at 344,066.

Eight overnight deaths took the death toll to 2,909.

Israelis shop at the Mahane Yehuda market inJerusalem on December 4, 2020. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

With the so-called coronavirus cabinet set to meet Sunday, a fight was expected over shopping malls. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and the Health Ministry are opposed to opening up more malls after a pilot program saw some 15 open in recent days. Health officials believe crowding at malls can contribute to rising infections.

Meanwhile, the economy and finance ministries believe the pilot was a success and want to open more malls, according to reports. They argue that opening further locations will mitigate issues of crowding that plagued the pilot.

Top health officials said the government wouldn’t impose a national coronavirus lockdown during the Hanukkah holiday, which takes place December 10-18, but will urge the public to avoid large gatherings.

Meanwhile, according to Channel 12, the Health Ministry is calling for the government to announce clear criteria for a potential third lockdown, suggesting this could actually encourage the public to maintain virus guidelines in order to avoid such an eventuality.

According to the network, there is concern that some of the latest infections are being driven by arrivals from abroad who are failing to properly quarantine as required by law, with only a quarter of those returning following the quarantine requirements.

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