Traffic to Jerusalem blocked for last day of Purim curfew to curb virus spread

Authorities fear gatherings in ultra-Orthodox areas will cause infections but are not expected to strictly enforce rules in capital, report says

Police patrol the Mahane Yehuda market, as they enforce a night curfew during Purim, Jerusalem February 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Police patrol the Mahane Yehuda market, as they enforce a night curfew during Purim, Jerusalem February 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Police set up checkpoints around Jerusalem on Saturday night to prevent revelers from traveling to the city for the final day of Purim celebrations, which are barred under coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Authorities also halted all public transportation to and from Jerusalem from Saturday night until Sunday night on the third night of a nationwide curfew to prevent gatherings during the holiday.

Police have broken up around 200 parties across the country since the holiday started on Thursday, but likely missed hundreds of others, Channel 12 reported.

Shushan Purim celebrations, held this year on Sunday, mark the final day of the festive holiday and are traditionally celebrated in walled cities such as Jerusalem and Safed.

Authorities are particularly concerned about “tisch” gatherings slated to take place throughout ultra-Orthodox communities, which have been virus hotspots all year, with many repeatedly flaunting government guidelines.

Officers were not expected to strictly enforce restrictions in the capital, Channel 12 reported. In recent months, police have been unwilling or unable to stop some mass infractions of virus restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox community, including several funerals that drew thousands.

There was a dearth of police reports on gatherings in ultra-Orthodox areas during Purim, while some synagogues and yeshivas were crowded with worshipers, meaning police were likely not enforcing the restrictions in those areas, the network said.

Police patrol the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, February 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

It was also considered nearly impossible for police to strictly enforce the nighttime nationwide curfew put in place for the holiday. Businesses are mainly open during the day to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from the virus, and many Israelis feel emboldened by the vaccination campaign.

The government has urged the public to avoid parties during the holiday, with the coronavirus far from being under control and infection indicators once again on the rise. Officials have warned that it is not yet clear that vaccination prevents one from carrying the pathogen, and thus fully inoculated people who are not careful could still be a danger to others.

In a bid to limit mass celebrations, the government enacted a nightly curfew on Thursday Friday and Saturday, instructing Israelis to remain up to a kilometer from home between 8:30 p.m. and 5 a.m. and to avoid any gatherings. Only essential businesses may open during those overnight hours.

But much of the public has ignored the government’s appeals and police have struggled to clamp down on dozens of daily Purim parties in recent days that have drawn mass crowds.

Hundreds of people took part in a large Purim costume party in Jaffa’s popular flea market Saturday afternoon in violation of the restrictions, with no social distancing and few masks in sight.

People celebrate the holiday of Purim in violation of coronavirus restrictions, at Jaffa’s Flea Market in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, February 27, 2021 (video screenshot)

One reveler said: “It’s strange that there are no police, but it’s good, we can party without being disturbed.” A woman was filmed singing “No corona, corona is over.”

Only after a few hours did police arrive to disperse the crowds. Police officials insisted that officers were active in the market area from the morning, but no enforcement was apparent during several hours of celebrations at the scene.

A similar party was reported on Friday afternoon in Tel Aviv, with police doing little to disperse the crowds.

Health officials told Hebrew media that the scenes of parties over the holiday were deeply concerning and have them worrying whether they will lead to another wave of infections that could lead to a delay in the economy’s reopening.

The next stage of restriction-easing is slated to take place on March 7 and includes the reopening of restaurants for seating. But if case numbers remain high and the healthcare system is once again strained, reopening plans will have to be delayed, health officials said.

Police on Thursday night dispersed over 100 Purim parties and events around the country that saw dozens or hundreds of people congregate against health regulations and in violation of a nationwide curfew.

People wearing costumes celebrate the holiday of Purim at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, February 26, 2021 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Holiday celebrations were broken up in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Rehovot, among other locations, officials said. Dozens of people were arrested or detained. Fines were handed out to both participants and organizers of events.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tweeted Friday morning: “I am appealing to the handful of people who can harm us all: Stop. Leave the parties until after the coronavirus. Forego the tisches [Hassidic gatherings] this time. The religious edict of merriment during the [Purim] holiday must not come at the expense of the public.”

Edelstein on Thursday warned of possible restrictions over Passover if celebratory gatherings are held during Purim.

Following festive gatherings during Purim last year, which came at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a jump in coronavirus cases in Israel.

Purim is usually marked with costume parties as well as large communal meals and drinking, in events bringing together family and friends. Since the start of the outbreak in the country last year, the government has occasionally ordered curfews, specifically during major holidays, in an effort to prevent gatherings and a seemingly inevitable spread of the virus.

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