Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Monday that Israel will halt moves to ease the nationwide lockdown and may even put more restrictions into place if coronavirus infection rates continue to go “in a very wrong direction.”
His warning came as Israel was gradually lifting the rules put in place two months ago, including sending high school students back to class on Sunday and launching a pilot to reopen some malls across the country over the weekend.
“I felt a huge sense of shock when I saw the congestion in the malls,” Edlestein told the Ynet news site of the program, which entailed the reopening of 15 malls around the country on Friday as part of a plan to evaluate their compliance with social-distancing guidelines. The openings drew large crowds of shoppers who waited in line to enter stores.
Malls have been closed — except for certain essential stores within them, such as pharmacies or food sellers — since mid-September under the lockdown rules. Street-front stores were allowed to reopen earlier this month, with a cap on the number of customers, which was raised from four to 10 on Wednesday.
“We will not be tempted by new openings in any way,” Edelstein said, tempering the hopes of small businesses still waiting for authorization to open. “Infection rates are going in a very wrong direction.”
According to Health Ministry data released on Monday morning, 985 new coronavirus cases were confirmed the previous day, up from 557 on Saturday (daily case numbers are typically lower on weekends as testing levels fall). The last three days of last week say new daily infections top 1,000, after remaining below that threshold for over a month.
Of the 39,774 tests performed Sunday, 2.5 percent came back positive, the Health Ministry said. As recently as Wednesday, the positivity rate stood at 1.8%.
The number of infections since the pandemic began stood at 355,980, of which 9,897 were active cases, an increase of some 200 over the weekend. According to the ministry, there were 263 people in serious condition, with 114 on ventilators.
The death toll stood at 2,864.
With numbers rising, the army is preparing preparing to confine soldiers to military bases and prevent weekend vacations for the coming month. Over a thousand soldiers were diagnosed with coronavirus last week, and the Israel Defense Forces has told soldiers returning to their bases to bring equipment to last them four weeks.
Edelstein said Monday the rising rates “do not mean we will be in lockdown in a week” but cautioned that “the coronavirus cabinet will approve very clear indices for when to enter a third closure.”
Despite warning against further commercial reopenings, the health minister added that he did not support rolling back the reopening of high schools, which he said “should open as planned.”
Around 400,000 Israeli high schoolers returned to the classroom on Sunday morning after a break of nearly two months. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, students will have at least two days a week of in-person studying, with distance learning on the remaining days.
Restrictions dividing students into separate study pods mean that teachers will be permitted to come in contact with up to four groups of students, and the students themselves to move between only two groups. High school principals have warned that the regulations mean that the majority of studies for individual subjects will therefore have to continue remotely.
Edelstein’s comments echoed those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel is better placed than other developed countries experiencing a second wave now, but “I’m telling you straight, we are in danger if we do not act immediately.”
“If there is a need, we will stop the easing and even tighten those [steps] that have already been made,” the prime minister said, urging citizens to stick to social distancing and mask-wearing rules.