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Government eases virus lockdown in all but one Israeli locale as infections drop

Virus czar says will consider shortening exit from closure; only Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood remains under tightened restrictions; health minister moves to increase fines

Police guard at a temporary checkpoint in the entrance to the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on October 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police guard at a temporary checkpoint in the entrance to the neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, on October 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ministers voted Tuesday to lift increased restrictions from nearly all locales that had remained under Israel’s high-infection classification in recent days, a government statement announced.

The move means only the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo will remain a so-called red zone, with special restrictions beyond those in the rest of the country.

No longer in the red zone are Bnei Brak, with the country’s second-highest number of cases; Modiin Ilit, with the highest number of cases per capita; Elad; and Beitar Ilit, along with several other Jerusalem neighborhoods.

The decision, by a panel of ministers formed to hash out restricted areas, was effective immediately.

Government coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu had recommended the move to ministers as the virus infection rates in those locations had improved.

Ministers already voted late Monday to ease the lockdown in the northern ultra-Orthodox city of Rechasim, which had also been a red zone.

Gamzu said Tuesday that the government was looking into the possibility of shortening the phases for exiting the lockdown.

“The situation is good. We’re getting close to the desired rate of positive tests. We saw a decline in red cities, mostly in the Haredi community,” Gamzu said.

“The lockdown continued because we thought it was an important and safe means of continuing down this path,” Gamzu said.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu during a visit to the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu’s traffic-light ranking system of green, orange and red calculates local rates of infection based on the number of actual cases, the rate at which cases double, and the percentage of tests that return positive on a week-by-week basis.

Bnei Brak municipality said that according to the scale the city is now orange, Channel 12 reported. Over the past two weeks there has been a dramatic drop of 85% in infection rates in the city with just 657 new patients in the last seven days compared to 4,180 two weeks ago.

As some lockdown rules were eased Sunday around the country, several red zones, all of them ultra-Orthodox, remained under a nearly full closure, though kindergartens, preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen everywhere.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen a disproportionately high number of virus cases. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were among the ultra-Orthodox, though they constitute only approximately 12% of the population.

Gamzu, however, has been hit with criticism from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers claiming he is singling them out for unfair restrictions.

Haredi parties are close allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hold significant sway in the government.

Starting Sunday, many ultra-Orthodox Torah-teaching institutions, including in Israel’s worst-affected contagion areas, took in students following instructions from a leading rabbi, despite regulations forbidding them from opening. Aside from kindergartens, preschools and daycare centers, the rest of the country’s education system remains shuttered.

Gamzu also said that beginning Tuesday, all Israelis can receive coronavirus tests for free without a doctor’s referral. Previously, people could only undergo a test without a referral if they lived in a high-infection area.

Police at a checkpoint located at the entrance to the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, October 18, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Tuesday that he will bring to ministers a proposal to increase fines against those who violate lockdown restrictions.

“The virus can spread rapidly just like it can decline rapidly,” Edelstein said during a visit to Poriya Medical Center in Tiberias.

“There is a gap between the coronavirus cabinet’s cautious decisions and what happens on the ground, with violations on the part of educational institutions and businesses. Therefore we will bring to the coronavirus cabinet a proposal to severely increase fines,” Edelstein said.

On Monday, Edelstein admitted that authorities were falling short in their mission to keep schools from operating in ultra-Orthodox areas.

The decisions to lift some restrictions came a week after the Sukkot and Simhat Torah holidays, prompting concerns of an outbreak in ultra-Orthodox areas, where gatherings were common and numerous violations were recorded. These lockdown violations may not yet be reflected in the official data.

The lockdown, Israel’s second since the start of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, sharply brought down daily infection rates but paralyzed public life for many.

Health Ministry figures released Tuesday evening showed there had been 1,481 virus cases diagnosed the day before. At the start of the lockdown, the daily rate was over 8,000 cases.

The ministry said only 2.9 percent of over 27,000 tests so far had come back positive Tuesday, one of the lowest figure in months, though not a final tally.

By Tuesday evening 759 cases had been diagnosed throughout the day. Since the start of the outbreak, 305,993 people have tested positive in Israeli for the coronavirus. There were currently 22,856 active cases. Deaths stood at 2,278.

Serious cases stood at 616, with 234 of them on ventilators.

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