Virus restrictions said likely to be reimposed next week, last for 5 weeks

Health Ministry sources quoted saying shutdown of commercial activity will be longer than planned since many schools will remain open

People wearing face masks on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, on December 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People wearing face masks on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem, on December 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry is expected to recommend a shutdown of commercial activity that will start next week and last for five weeks, to combat runaway coronavirus infection rates, according to a report on Tuesday evening.

The ministry expects Israel to reach 2,500 daily coronavirus infections as a weekly average — its benchmark for reposing restrictions — late next week, the Kan public broadcaster report said, citing senior ministry sources.

The report said stores and businesses will likely be closed for five weeks. Since the proposed health regulations will leave the education system open in low- and medium-infection zones, the restrictions will have to last for more time because the presumed drop in infections that follows will likely be slower, according to the report. Schools in virus hotspots will be closed if new restrictions are imposed.

The ministry sources reportedly said that toward the end of the five-week period, certain venues — including performance spaces and shopping malls — will be allowed to open if all participants have a document proving they have either recovered from COVID-19 or have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Also allowed to reopen at that stage will be businesses that serve a single customer at a time, such as hairdressers and beauty salons.

Israel has already had two national lockdowns since the outbreak began in March. Some restrictions from the second lockdown, limiting public life, are still in place.

People walk in the almost-empty market in Rehovot, on October 19, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Earlier Tuesday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said the government will not hesitate to again tighten regulations, including shutting down commercial activity, as the daily virus caseload climbed to the highest level in two months.

Speaking to Kan, Edelstein said the government had laid down clear conditions on what would trigger tighter restraints — either more than 2,500 new virus cases in a day, or a basic reproduction number of over 1.32 — and did not plan to veer from those limits.

Health Ministry figures on Tuesday morning showed there were over 2,200 cases diagnosed the day before. A military task force working on virus policy predicted that the number will reach 2,500 daily cases by the end of December. The R0 value, which due to its calculation is published as its value seven days earlier, was 1.27 last week, according to the ministry. Any value over one means the virus infection rate is increasing.

According to the Health Ministry figures, there are 18,832 active coronavirus cases in the country. Since the start of the pandemic earlier this year, there have been 360,630 cases diagnosed in Israel, and 3,014 people have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The ministry did not update the figures on Tuesday evening.

Edelstein lamented the complacency he saw among much of the population, with many feeling the pandemic is close to its end after the first batch of vaccines arrived. “The situation won’t be easy for the coming months,” he warned.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein gives a press conference at a coronavirus vaccine center in Tel Aviv on December 13, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

Edelstein spoke as Israel prepared to launch a mass vaccination program next week, with the government setting a target of 60,000 vaccines a day once the drive begins, meaning two million Israelis would be vaccinated by the end of January.

As a confidence-boosting measure, amid concerns by significant numbers of people that the quickly-developed vaccines may not be safe, Edelstein will be one of the first to get the shot, telling the station he expects that to happen on Saturday night.

“I won’t ask the public to do anything that I am not prepared to do,” he said.

Amid the reports of a third potential lockdown, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also expected to receive a vaccine on Saturday night, hinted Tuesday evening that until the inoculations are widely available, businesses may suffer further setbacks.

He said the government would “give businesses the oxygen they need to survive” by approving additional grants to those hit by the virus restrictions and “removing almost all restrictions on state-guaranteed business loans.”

“This is big news,” Netanyahu said in a video put out on his social media channels. “Together we will get through it, both in health and in the economy.’

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