‘This is no lockdown,’ top health official says as school, workplaces stay open

Meanwhile business owners argue limitations are too strict and declare they’ll defy them: ‘We’re disregarded, so we’ll disregard them’

Closed down stores at the Azrieli shopping mall in Tel Aviv on December 27, 2020, as Israel enters its third nationwide lockdown in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Closed down stores at the Azrieli shopping mall in Tel Aviv on December 27, 2020, as Israel enters its third nationwide lockdown in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

After Israel entered its third nationwide lockdown on Sunday, a top Health Ministry official argued that the new restrictions do not constitute a lockdown since people are going to work and to school, and business owners threatened to openly defy the closure order due to financial hardship.

The lockdown began at 5 p.m. Sunday evening. Although declared to be for a two-week period with an option to extend, health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month. Daily virus cases in Israel have been climbing upward in recent weeks, surpassing 3,000 on most days over the past week.

The current lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. Fines for violators stand at NIS 500 ($155). Schools have remained open.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of the Health Ministry’s public health services division, said during a heated Knesset discussion Sunday that the restrictions were not truly a lockdown.

She entered into a fierce debate with epidemiologist Hagai Levine, who has been advising several Knesset committees and who tweeted Sunday that the Health Ministry was ignoring the adverse health effects the lockdown would have, and therefore “causing more damage than benefit for the public.”

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis. (Courtesy)

At a Constitution, Law and Justice Committee meeting, Alroy-Preis shot back at Levine that the Health Ministry predictions from several weeks ago about the rate in which cases would rise had been accurate.

But, she added, “we are using the word ‘lockdown’ even though this is not a lockdown if people are going to work and people are going to classes, so there isn’t a lockdown. There are restrictions that may and may not be strict enough to significantly lower infections.

“All the other comments are comments by people who can sit as advisers and say them, but the responsibility, in the end, won’t be theirs.”

‘I’m unable to close again’

Meanwhile, media outlets reported that business owners were vowing to defy the lockdown rules that forbid them from opening, citing their financial woes in light of the imposed closures of the past year.

“I think many will go out and work,” Beersheba hairdresser Dudu Kadosh told the Kan public broadcaster. “There’s simply no other choice. We are disregarded, so we will also disregard them.”

Danielle Barak, who owns a clothing store in Kiryat Bialik, told Kan that she no longer knows if she’ll manage to survive financially since she has big debts and no income. “I simply don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I don’t see how I’ll survive,” she said.

“I’m unable to close again,” Pilates studio owner Ella Eilon told Channel 12. “I must make a living. It’s a basic right and I can’t give it up. Every lockdown I lose customers and then start at a lower point when I can reopen. We can go no lower, we have already significantly scaled down the activity which means my livelihood is harmed even when we can reopen.”

She said that staying open was necessary for some of her customers, who are recovering from injuries or operations and whose conditions tend to deteriorate when they don’t get continuous treatment.

Channel 13 reported that representatives of business owners are set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday. They are expected to ask the premier to make sure the restrictions on their activities won’t last longer than two weeks.

Traffic jams on Ayalon highway in Tel Aviv as Israel enters its third nationwide lockdown in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, December 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/FLASH90)

The government is under pressure to shorten the lockdown, and one key figure could possibly help make such a decision — the basic reproduction number, which represents the average number of people each virus carrier infects.

That number has been steady over the weekend after continuously rising over the past few weeks, raising hopes that if that trend continues, the lockdown could be shortened.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Sunday condemned Knesset lawmakers for voting to allow all schools to remain open during the third national lockdown, saying the decision would only prolong the closure.

Under the original terms for the lockdown proposed by the government, preschools, grades 1-4 and grades 11-12 were to have a full day of classes as usual, but grades 5-10 were to stay at home and use distance learning instead. However, the Knesset Education Committee convened on Sunday and voted to overturn the regulations, thereby keeping all students in the classroom.

Edelstein said the “wretched decision to allow studies in all grades is something that will certainly prolong the lockdown.”

Israeli students wearing face masks return to high school in Tel Aviv on December 6, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

During the lockdown, security forces will set up hundreds of checkpoints on highways around the country. Hebrew media reports indicated that the police presence on the roads would be sporadic during the day and bolstered during the nighttime hours.

The rules will be enforced by some 6,000 cops nationwide.

“Lockdowns save lives,” said coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Sunday, shortly before the lockdown began.

“We are in a race between the rising morbidity and the vaccines,” added Ash. “The vaccine campaign is going exceptionally well. We have managed to vaccinate nearly 300,000 people, and at the same time, the vaccines are streaming into Israel according to plan and we will receive more during the coming weeks.”

Health officials have expressed optimism that the latest closure will be the nation’s last as it steps up its vaccination drive.

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