Virus cases in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem surge, stoking fears of ‘wildfire’ spread

Cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations see big jump in new diagnoses; police minister says cops carrying out ‘unprecedented enforcement’ in Bnei Brak

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem for violating emergency directives to contain the coronavirus, on March 30, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem for violating emergency directives to contain the coronavirus, on March 30, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

There was a marked jump in new coronavirus cases Wednesday in Israeli cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations, amid growing concerns over a major outbreak of COVID-19 in the community.

According to Health Ministry figures, the number of cases in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak jumped by 159 over a 24-hour period.

That brought the total number of cases in Bnei Brak to 730, a 27.8 percent increase.

Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb with nearly 200,000 residents, has the second most confirmed cases of any Israeli city, though it is the ninth largest in the country by population.

Jerusalem, which also has a sizable ultra-Orthodox population, recorded 131 new cases between Tuesday and Wednesday, a rise of 20%.

That brought the total in the capital to 781 cases, the most of any city in Israel.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks by a poster about the coronavirus in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim on March 31, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Among the other cities in Israel to record a large increase of new coronavirus cases were Modiin Illit, Beit Shemesh, Elad and Beitar Illit, all of which are majority ultra-Orthodox or have sizable Haredi populations.

The increases in percentage terms were 33% in Modiin Illit, 25% in Beit Shemesh, 15.7% in Beitar Illit and 14.7% in Elad.

Some of the largest cities in Israel saw much smaller increases in new cases.

In Tel Aviv there were 14 new cases, bringing the total to 292, while in Haifa the number rose from 67 to 72.

Rishon Lezion had 106 cases in total, a rise of three from the day before.

The sharp increase in new cases in Bnei Brak came as a senior Health Ministry official expressed concern the outbreak in the city could spread across the country.

“This is like a wildfire in a field of weeds,” Boaz Lev told the Ynet news site.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose ministry oversees the police, said in an interview with the website that officers are carrying out “exacting and unprecedented enforcement” in Bnei Brak.

Police patrol in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on March 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Authorities have upped enforcement in recent days of social distancing regulations in Bnei Brak and other ultra-Orthodox areas, where some have flouted rules against congregating or leaving home for non-essential reasons.

In an address later to the Knesset plenum, Erdan said he was pushing for authority to force anyone, whether in Bnei Brak or elsewhere, who tests positive for the virus, or is required to be in quarantine, to move to a hotel, where their movement can be more easily tracked.

People infected with the virus could spread it to others they live with if they remain at home, a particular concern in communities like Bnei Brak, where large families often live in tight quarters.

Officials are looking at ways to reduce the outbreak in Bnei Brak, where one in three residents tested for the coronavirus have been found to carry it. The high percentage of positive tests reported Tuesday by the Health Ministry compares to 6% in Tel Aviv and 10% in Jerusalem.

A police officer checks to make sure people are adhering to emergency directives to contain the coronavirus, in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, on April 1, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Police on Tuesday set up checkpoints around Bnei Brak and were checking IDs of anyone trying to enter, as the government moved toward placing a cordon around the city.

Though most cabinet ministers back Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s proposal of putting a cordon on the city, the National Security Council was opposed, arguing it was impossible to implement and could make Bnei Brak’s ultra-Orthodox residents less likely to obey directives, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

The cabinet instead decided to increase the number of police in the city and up enforcement of the emergency ordinances, the report said.

Bnei Brak’s mayor warned Tuesday evening against making his city into “a ghetto.”

Overall, there have been 5,591 confirmed coronavirus cases in Israel as of Wednesday morning, with 21 deaths.

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