Demonstrations are exempt from ban on public gatherings

Weekend leisure ban, tempered public restrictions take effect Friday afternoon

After restaurants temporarily exempted from sweeping closures, gyms and shops close for weekend while gatherings limited until further notice; education system to run normally

Police officers enforce emergency regulations on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on July 17, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers enforce emergency regulations on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on July 17, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

New public restrictions authorized by the government to combat the spread of coronavirus entered into effect Friday at 5 p.m., limiting public gatherings until further notice and shuttering various leisure and fitness activities for the duration of the weekend.

A last-minute reversal by the government led to a decision to keep restaurants open until Tuesday, when they will be shuttered until further notice for all but takeaways and deliveries. The government changed course when it faced widespread threats by restaurant owners to defy the closure order, which had been originally intended to take effect at 5 p.m. on Friday.

Meanwhile, Hebrew media reports indicated that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz had decided to keep educational institutions open for now, at least until the middle of next week. Shutting down the education system would close kindergartens, camps and summer schools.

Ministers voted for the new restrictions in the early hours of Friday morning, as virus cases in Israel surged to record highs. Israel has seen the daily infection rate rise to 1,800-1,900. The number of active cases as of Friday stood at 25,636, of a total of 46,546 since the start of the pandemic.

Under the new rules gyms and fitness studios closed at 5 p.m. on Friday until further notice.

Gatherings of over 10 people indoors, and 20 outdoors, will also be forbidden until further notice, but work groups and nuclear families will be exempt.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn vowed Friday that there will be no limits on demonstrations or on courts even if a full lockdown is enacted down the road.

Amid growing public unrest and demonstrations by various groups — from opponents of the premier to Israelis suffering economically from the government’s pandemic policies — some have called to restrict protests citing public health concerns. This has led protest activists to warn of a threat to democratic values should the right to demonstrate be impinged upon.

New Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn speaks during a ceremony at the Justice Ministry on May 18, 2020. (Shlomi Amsalem/GPO)

“Even under limitations, we will ensure civil rights,” Nissenkorn said in a Facebook post. “The fundamentals of democracy are important during regulars times, and even more important during emergencies.”

Government offices will be limited to 50% capacity and will be closed to the public, except for online services, until further notice. Cafeterias at workplaces will be closed, except for takeout.

Meanwhile, only on weekends until further notice, shops will close but stores offering essential services, such as pharmacies and supermarkets, will be allowed to remain open.

Malls, markets, barbers, hairdressers, beauty parlors, libraries, zoos, museums, exhibition spaces, pools and tourist sites will also be closed on weekends.

The weekend restrictions take effect at 5 p.m. on Friday, and are lifted at 5 a.m. on Sunday.

Pile of chairs outside a fast-food restaurant on Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem on July 17, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This weekend, there are no new restrictions on movement and beaches will remain open, subject to social distancing. But a tighter weekend lockdown is likely to take effect from Friday, July 24, including restrictions on movement. As of July 24,  beaches are also set be closed on weekends.

The joint statement from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry did not specify whether the restrictions on gatherings will also apply to religious services, but ultra-Orthodox news sites said attendance at synagogues will be limited to 10 people and outdoor prayer gatherings will be capped at 20 worshippers.

The latest restrictions were reportedly made with the support of National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, whose agency has led the effort to combat the virus. The announcement came after lengthy discussions that lasted over six hours.

“Within three weeks we’ll be at 1,600 in serious condition if we continue down this path without new restrictions,” Netanyahu warned at the cabinet meeting. “If we don’t flatten the curve, we’re putting many Israelis in danger.”

“The alternative to the steps we [want to] take today is significantly more difficult steps tomorrow, which we are trying to avoid,” Netanyahu said. He added that the proposals brought before ministers “are mainly aimed at stopping gatherings.”

Netanyahu on Thursday asked Knesset Law Committee Chairman MK Ya’akov Asher to prepare legislation to be voted on next week that would grant the government the authority to declare full lockdowns on weekends.

One of the main points of contention at Thursday’s meeting was the fate of the education system. Education Minister Yoav Gallant opposed closing schools, arguing that the data on the virus spread did not back up the decision.

Likud’s Ofir Akunis, Gila Gamliel and Ze’ev Elkin also opposed shuttering schools, Ynet reported.

According to Channel 12 news, Health Ministry officials told cabinet ministers that Israel could see 20 coronavirus deaths a day next month if the rate of new infections isn’t curbed.

Meanwhile, Gantz has proposed that lockdowns be imposed on weeknights as a means to improve social distancing while minimally impacting the economy, Channel 12 said. It was not clear whether he was proposing the measure instead of weekend lockdowns or in addition.

A leading Israeli doctor told The Times of Israel on Thursday that weekend lockdowns could do more harm than good by forcing people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.

Israel was initially seen as a success story after clamping down on the virus by imposing a strict lockdown in March and April, but saw the pandemic surge to unprecedented levels after reopening schools and rescinding almost all restrictions.

Experts have blamed a too-speedy reopening and the lack of an effective contact tracing program as main factors in the virus running riot.

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