Virus cabinet deliberates further easing lockdown measures

Ministers squabble over plan approved Sunday to allow grades 1-4 to return to school, with some criticizing decision that youngest kids will attend only 3 days a week

A classroom at an elementary school in Tel Aviv is empty after Israel closed schools ahead of a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, September 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A classroom at an elementary school in Tel Aviv is empty after Israel closed schools ahead of a nationwide lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus, September 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The high-level coronavirus cabinet convened Monday to discuss further easing lockdown measures in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, a day after giving approval for some classes to reopen next week.

Ministers were expected to deliberate allowing afterschool programs and school buses to resume operating, as well as allowing some shops to reopen.

Hours into the meeting, Hebrew media reports said ministers were leaning toward approving the reopening of stores that accept customers in person as early as Sunday, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in favor.

But while a majority seemed to be forming to approve the step, it had yet to be okayed, since the Health Ministry was opposed.

“I won’t support opening commerce. We’re playing with fire here,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein was quoted saying by Channel 12 news.

As the meeting got underway, ministers squabbled over the plan to reopen schools for children in first to fourth grade early next week, if morbidity rates remain low.

Finance Minister Israel Katz expressed opposition to having children study at school for only part of the week and said classes should resume in full.

“I’ve reached the conclusion that we have no choice but to let grades 1-2 study,” he said, according to leaks from the meeting. “I don’t know anywhere in the world where they did capsules [in schools].”

First grade students arrive for their first day of school at Tali Geulim school in Jerusalem on September 1, 2020. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Education Minister Yoav Gallant reacted angrily to criticism of the plan by lawmakers from the coalition’s Blue and White party, some of whom called for students in grades 1-4 to return to school full time.

“Are we one government or not? I suggest you tell your representatives in the Knesset to calm down and be in a spirit of cooperation and not schism,” he said.

Gantz reportedly snapped back at Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

“You should calm down. I understand that in [local] authorities it is possible to study more than three days a week and this needs to be allowed as much as possible,” Gantz reportedly said.

Ahead of the meeting, the national task force combating the coronavirus outbreak expressed concerned COVID-19 cases were being imported from areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, citing high infection rates there and among Arab Israelis.

During the meeting, coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu was set to recommend mandatory quarantine for Arab Israelis returning after visiting the PA-controlled areas, according to Hebrew media reports.

Also under consideration was designating Palestinian cities with high infection rates as “red” cities, which could presumably entail restrictions on people who have visited those cities.

The task force cited a report that PA areas have around 400 new daily cases with a 20% positive test rate (PA official numbers say this figure is in fact around 10%) and 30-40 new serious patients every day, concluding that those numbers indicate the true morbidity rate is around four times higher than the official numbers.

It said Arab Israelis are increasingly going to those areas for work, events and entertainment. It also highlighted the fact that some 100,000 Palestinian workers cross into Israel every day.

Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Mitar checkpoint in the southern West Bank on May 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Also Monday, the deputy director-general of the Health Ministry left a meeting of the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee that he addressed virtually after getting into a shouting match with Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy.

Asked by lawmakers when guesthouses could reopen, Itamar Grotto said only during the third stage of the Health Ministry’s multi-phase plan for lifting the monthlong national lockdown that began on September 18. He was then pressed by Levy on why they could not reopen now and Shas MK Yakov Margi, the committee chairman, told Grotto that lawmakers were waiting for answer.

“If you have a problem, turn to the cabinet,” Grotto fumed.

“Stop behaving like this,” Levy fired back, as Grotto angrily hung up the Zoom call. “You’re insolent!”

Margi said Grotto’s behavior was “unacceptable.”

“If he’s stressed out over the situation, he should take a vacation,” he quipped.

Grotto has previously had heated exchanges with MKs during committee meetings.

Itamar Grotto, deputy director general of the Health Ministry, addresses the Knesset’s Economic Affairs Committee by Zoom on October 26, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

Earlier, the Health Ministry said it had logged fewer than 1,000 new coronavirus cases over the past two days, continuing a downward trend, though top health officials fretted about declining test rates.

Though testing rates generally drop over the weekends, the decline on Saturday and Sunday, which followed two weeks of testing rates steadily declining, drew expressions of concern from the top official managing the government’s pandemic response.

“I urge every citizen, even upon the slightest suspicion, ask yourself if there’s a chance you were infected,” Gamzu said Monday, according to the Haaretz daily. “It’s all open and accessible, the results are available within hours. This pandemic, certainly in the second wave, is one that is being spread through the youth and children. They aren’t always symptomatic — and then comes the stage of symptomatic cases among adults, and hospitalizations.”

Gamzu said the Health Ministry had the capacity to perform 70,000 daily tests, and would in the coming weeks raise that to 100,000.

On Sunday, Gamzu warned ministers that it would be impossible to continue easing restrictions if a daily test rate of 50,000 cannot be maintained.

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