The government decided Sunday to impose a three-week nationwide lockdown to curb a surge in coronavirus cases, a measure that will take effect Friday at 2 P.M., on the eve of Rosh Hashanah.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a press briefing that warnings by health officials led to the government’s decision, which restricts Israelis to a 500-meter (about 0.3 miles) radius of their residence.
Coronavirus chief Prof. Ronni Gamzu said the decision to impose a lockdown was “the best of all evils.” He added, “We’re in a war, it’s a complex challenge, something that certainly keeps me awake at night and certainly reflects the pressure within the hospitals, who are raising a flag, at least some of them. We are doing everything to continue to accept the amount of patients, but this obligates us to take action.”
Ultra-Orthodox minister and Netanyahu ally Yaakov Litzman resigned from the government in protest hours before the lockdown was approved.
Litzman is the chairman of the United Torah Judaism party and construction and housing minister. He had threatened to resign earlier Sunday if the coronavirus cabinet voted to impose a two-week lockdown ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday.
In a statement, Litzman said a lockdown during the High Holidays “will prevent hundreds of thousands of Jews, of all sectors, from praying in synagogues.” A UTJ source told Haaretz that Litzman is acting on his own and his decisions are not coordinated with the rest of the party.
Crowds will be limited to 10 people indoors and 20 people outdoors. Public worship on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur must be in groups of up to 25 people, or up to 10 in communities with high infection rates. In addition, there must be four square meters of floor space for each worshiper.
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Supermarkets and pharmacies will stay open. The full details of the government’s decision were to be released later in the evening.
The government decided that the schools will stay open until Friday, Rosh Hashanah eve, changing course from the initial decision to close them already on Wednesday.
During the lockdown, people will be restricted to a 500-meter radius from their home. All businesses, commerce, domestic tourism, places of entertainment and government offices that serve people in person will be closed, with the exception of essential services, grocery stores and supermarkets, pharmacies, hardware stores, medical supply stores and computer and cellphone stores and repair facilities. Restaurants will be limited to delivery and takeout service.
Government offices will operate at 30 percent of normal staffing levels, except for essential offices. Businesses will be limited to 10 employees coming in to work, or 30 percent of normal staffing levels, whichever is higher. Businesses providing essential services are exempt from these limits.
Netanyahu called a press conference Sunday evening to present the main points of the plan, but first commented on his trip to Washington to sign normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. He said that restrictions were being imposed now throughout the world. “We open when the morbidity drops and constrict when it rises, and that’s exactly what’s happening all over the world,” he said.
Netanyahu said, “When our morbidity went up I asked [coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni] Gamzu when we’ll know that we need to lock down, and the experts said, we’ll lock down when the health system raises a red flag. They said that we could pull off two months even if the morbidity is high. We carried on with minimal restrictions until last week. On Thursday the raised the red flag and warned us that the situation required taking immediate measures. The medical teams are burning out. They are warning of a sudden increase in the condition of the seriously ill.” According to the premier, “This is not a problem of beds or ventilators, it’s a problem of burnout of the medical teams.”
The lockdown is to be the first stage of a plan that was approved by the coronavirus cabinet. In the second stage, the 500-meter limit is supposed to be lifted. Worship during Sukkot and on Simhat Torah will follow the same rules as for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All of the restrictions on business, commerce, culture, leisure activities and the like will remain in place.
During the third stage the state will revert to the “traffic light” plan proposed by Gamzu, meaning differentiated restrictions based on the incidence of infection in any given town.
The increasing rate of coronavirus infection is inching the country’s hospitals closer to maximum capacity, destabilizing the health system, a report by the coronavirus information center said Sunday.
During the cabinet discussion an argument arose over whether to impose restrictions on demonstrations. The head of health services in the Health Ministry, Sharon Elroi-Price, said that the proposal submitted to the cabinet called for allowing demonstrations only 500 meters from one’s home. But Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit objected to any restriction on demonstrations, as he had during the first wave. Minister David Amsalem responded by saying, “All that interests you is demonstrations, not public health.”
Netanyahu did not mention demonstrations during the press conference, and it still wasn’t clear Sunday night what had been decided because the cabinet decision was not released. Under a law passed by the Knesset in July, the government cannot ban demonstrations but can limit the number of participants and can’t block people from traveling to a demonstration in a different city.
The center’s daily report said the coronavirus is rapidly spreading here, adding that the rate of infection during the past two weeks is the highest recorded since the outbreak began.
The Health Ministry said that 495 more people have tested positive for the coronavirus since Saturday night, raising the nationwide tally of confirmed cases to 153,217, out of which 37,482 are active and 130 are on ventilators.
So far, 1,103 people have died from the virus and 114,624 have recovered.
The ministry added that 30,253 coronavirus tests were conducted on Saturday.
The lockdown had originally been slated to begin at 6 A.M, but the ministers decided to push it off to afternoon to allow more time to prepare for the holiday.