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Virus czar warns ultra-Orthodox against opening schools ahead of lockdown exit

Ronni Gamzu urges Israelis to keep to the health guidelines, says complacency could take cities backwards as country prepares to roll back restrictions amid fears of repeated chaos

Israeli police argue with ultra-Orthodox worshippers in Miron on October 15, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)
Israeli police argue with ultra-Orthodox worshippers in Miron on October 15, 2020. (David Cohen/FLASH90)

The top official charged with leading Israel’s response to the coronavirus warned Saturday evening against becoming complacent and urged ultra-Orthodox communities not to open schools, as the government was set to significantly roll back a nationwide lockdown.

Israel on Sunday was to begin easing a month-long closure that has managed to curb runaway infection rates, but shuttered much of the economy and paralyzed life for many. Officials have expressed fears that pressure to swiftly reopen schools and the full economy will lead to a repeat of Israel’s chaotic emergence from its first lockdown in May, widely blamed for paving the way for the spike in new COVID-19 cases over the late summer.

Speaking in a televised address, Ronni Gamzu thanked Israelis for adhering to the rules, but warned that the country was far from being out of the woods.

“Restrain yourselves,” he said, urging Iraelis to avoid gatherings such as weddings and parties as “they’ll quickly bring us backwards.”

“Don’t shrug it off. This could lead to a renewed rise in infections, especially in red cities,” he said.

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

He issued a specific warning to the Haredi community, after a prominent rabbi called for the reopening of ultra-Orthodox schools even though most of the education system remains shut down.

“Opening the education system in violation of the regulations is dangerous and against the law,” he said.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi in the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, ordered boys’ schools in the Haredi Talmud Torah system to reopen Sunday, despite rules prohibiting schools from first grade and up from operating. Kanievsky, who is himself infected with the coronavirus, called for students to adhere to social distancing measures and limit the number of pupils per classroom, according to the Ynet news site.

Clalit Health Services workers take swab samples for preschool and daycare staff members at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in the central city of Lod, October 16, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Preschools and daycares will be allowed to reopen tomorrow as part of an initial rollback of the lockdown, but all other schools must remain closed. Gamzu urged teachers and staff to get tested before they open, and at the sign of any symptoms.

Cities with high infection rates, labeled as “red zones,” were initially excluded from the decision, but ministers later reversed course and okayed preschools in those areas to open. All of the cities are majority ultra-Orthodox. The community — parts of which have flouted mask-wearing, bans on indoor gatherings and social distancing — has been particularly hard-hit by the virus, though some community leaders have charged that they are being stigmatized and singled out.

Gamzu, during his address, rejected suggestions that the decision to allow preschools and daycares to reopen in virus hotspots was political.

“The opening of preschools and daycares is not free from danger, yet this was not a political decision, but a decision made on the basis of advice from those who know the ground well,” he said.

Girls walking in Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

He confirmed that infection rates in the red cities had dipped, but said they were still seeing a viral reproduction rate (or R naught) above 0.8 per carrier, the threshold at which cities may have the “red” label removed.

Ministers also agreed on Thursday to lift the limit on Israelis traveling more than one kilometer from home unless for specific permitted purposes; allow them to visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors); allow restaurants to serve takeout; permit businesses that don’t receive customers to open; allow Israelis to visit beaches and national parks; and reopen the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound for worship under certain restrictions.

People walk past a billboard posted by the Health Ministry instructing people to wear face masks, in Jerusalem on October 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gamzu said Israel still had to slip to below 1,000 cases a day while keeping below the 0.8 reproduction rate figure, to move to the next stage of the Health Ministry’s gradual, several-month exit plan based on epidemiological benchmarks.

“This will pave the way to the next stage, including — among other things — opening schools from grades one through four. It’s important that we get schools back on track,” he said.

According to the Health Ministry, 1,469 people were diagnosed on Friday out of a total of 34,640 tests performed over the course of the day, a positive rate of 4.2 percent, one of the lowest rates since July. Another 313 cases had been diagnosed on Saturday as of 6:15 p.m. out of over 10,000 tests for a positivity rate of 3%, though those figures will likely change.

A worker from ‘Hevra Kadisha,’ Israel’s official Jewish burial society, prepares bodies at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Oct. 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

At its peak, Israel saw as many as 9,000 new cases a day and test positivity rates of above 15%.

“There are 700 seriously ill patients in hospitals, 200 more than the point at which hospitals began waving red flags,” Gamzu warned on Saturday.

Hospital officials had warned that they would begin becoming overwhelmed when the number of patients in serious condition reached 800, a threshold breached for over a week earlier this month.

Health Ministry figures Saturday night showed the number of seriously ill had fallen to 689, including 238 patients on ventilators.

With over 302,000 coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic, Israel currently has 35,212 active cases.

The death toll, meanwhile, stood at 2,167 as of Saturday evening.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the lockdown as a success, despite estimations of massive economic losses. Asked whether he shared the assessment Saturday night, Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Channel 12 news the move was “necessary,” albeit “painful.”

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