Haaretz Visited Some of Israel's COVID-19 Hot Spots, Here Are Their Stories

Betar Ilit, Nazareth, Tiberias, Be’er Sheva and Jerusalem are just some of the country's many cities with high infection rates, here's how they are handling the nationwide lockdown

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People wearing masks walk at a local market in Tiberias during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23, 2020.
People wearing masks walk at a local market in Tiberias during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

This week, Haaretz visited a number of cities with severe coronavirus outbreaks. These are their stories.

Zoom with Haaretz: How Israel’s COVID failure led to a second national lockdown

Betar Ilit

The policeman at the checkpoint at the entrance to the ultra-Orthodox city of Betar Ilit asked some superficial questions, as if just going through the motions. “Where are you from? What are you doing here?” he asked the car’s passengers – and didn’t even wait for an answer before allowing them to enter. That’s presumably why there was no frustrating lineup of cars, as there had been during the previous closure imposed on the city two months ago. No one questioned people leaving the city.

A tour of the town found residents observing the lockdown guidelines and those who were ignoring them. In one synagogue there were dozens of young men learning, around half of them without masks. “So you’ve come to malign the Haredi community?” asked one of them. “Why are you doing this? Go to Tel Aviv.” At the entrance to the post office, around 20 women with strollers were trying to crowd under the awning to stay out of the sun. Every single woman was wearing a mask, as were the overwhelming majority of the residents seen at that hour on the main street.

People wearing masks walk in Betar Ilit during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23 2020
People wearing masks walk in Betar Ilit during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

According to residents, enforcement on store openings was strict. “This morning a patrol car came to the toy store across from me and the policemen said he couldn’t open,” said one store owner. He got permission to open his store because he sells Sukkot-related items. “For two days we were closed but according to the guidelines, from today I can open, and the policemen who were here allowed me to work,” he said.

This store owner said there is intense enforcement of the lockdown regulations, with frequent patrols by police and municipal inspectors. A source in the municipality agreed, saying, “Enforcement here is way out of proportion to the city’s size.”

Nazareth

People wearing masks walk in the streets of Nazareth during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23, 2020.
People wearing masks walk in the streets of Nazareth during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

Every driver in this city knows he needs nerves of steel to traverse the city’s main road. On Wednesday it was different; one could travel along the main road in both directions without having to stop even once.

Most stores not deemed essential were closed, as were all the commercial centers and tourist attractions. “There’s no point in opening anyway,” said the owner of a housewares store on the main road. “There aren’t any customers.”

Restaurants, including the fast-food kiosks, were working in a limited fashion based on deliveries. Since customers could not be seated, one hummus place on Tawfik Zayad Street brought portions to the customers’ cars. “We’re not taking any chances,” said the waiter, nodding toward a passing patrol car.

Most garages were open, but it was clear they had few customers. “Nazareth is a city of services, based on small businesses, so the moment there are no tourists, studies or commerce, there’s no reason to be outside,” said Khalil, standing at a square not far from the Church of the Annunciation, which was closed. “You see cars here and there, but there’s no doubt it’s a different Nazareth.”

Tiberias

People wearing masks shop at a local market in Tibrias during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 24, 2020.
People wearing masks shop at a local market in Tibrias during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 24, 2020.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“They’ve finished the country,” said Yossi Levi, the owner of a snack kiosk on the promenade, who was walking yesterday in the local open-air market, one of the few areas in Tiberias with traffic. “There are no tourists or pilgrims. The city is dead. They’ve spread a ton of fear among us. The fear is worse than death. Death hits and that’s it; fear is slow suicide.”

Tiberias on Wednesday looked like a ghost town. There were cars and buses on the roads, but because of the heat there were few people outside. The streets are full of stores with “For Sale/Rent” signs. “Forty-five stalls on the promenade have closed; 45 families without a livelihood or a solution,” Levi said. One stall owner name, Yoni Karsenti, responded forcefully, “It’s just Bibi, and the [coalition] bloc. You wanted Bibi, this is what you got.”

There were no police around, but there were parking inspectors, even though the huge parking lot in the center was practically empty. Doron Barda, owner of four local businesses, including clothing stores, was wandering around with a lost, angry look, answering calls. “They closed me down in the middle of the holiday [season]; after Sukkot I have to change the collection. We took a loan of 300,000 shekels [$87,000] to buy merchandise. Who’ll give me a loan now?

Be’er Sheva

A man sits in front of closed stores at the Be'er Sheva market amid Israel's second coronavirus lockdown, September 23, 2020.
A man sits in front of closed stores at the Be'er Sheva market amid Israel's second coronavirus lockdown, September 23, 2020.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

At the entrance to the municipal market there are still signs announcing its reopening after the previous lockdown. To help restore the merchants’ revenue, the city launched a signage campaign and put up huge placards around the market encouraging people to shop there.

Since the current lockdown began, the number of people in the market has dropped dramatically, although most of the stalls were open, even those that didn’t look essential. The owner of one store that sold household products said he had decided to open because he had no choice.

The market has a police station and an inspector overseeing the observance of the lockdown rules. A team of inspectors was seen explaining to one of the store owners that his wasn’t an essential business and had to close, but that he wouldn’t be fined. One inspector said they are trying to issue warnings the first time. But the other lockdown guidelines were proving more difficult to enforce. Both salespeople and customers were seen without masks, or wearing their masks improperly. Social distancing rules were not being observed, since they simply can’t be kept in the market’s narrow alleys.

The difference between the previous and current closure is felt all over the city. Part of it is because the current closure allows for freer movement as well as the opening of more businesses. However, part of the difference is due to conscious noncompliance with guidelines by business owners. They said they had no more savings left, their debts had swelled and that strict compliance with the guidelines would ruin them economically.

Jerusalem

Police officer hand two young men masks in Jerusalem during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23, 2020.
Police officer hand two young men masks in Jerusalem during Israel's second nationwide lockdown, September 23, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

A tour of the streets of Jerusalem demonstrates the lack of order with which the state is being managed now. The incidence of infection is worrisome; 802 new cases were confirmed in the previous 24 hours, a record. After a period in which East Jerusalem was the largest source of new cases, over the past couple of weeks the Haredi neighborhoods overtook them.

But the atmosphere in the streets didn’t reflect this. The Mahaneh Yehuda market was open almost as usual. In the triangle of Ben-Yehuda Street, Jaffa Road and King George Street the influence of the lockdown was felt more.

On the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall, more than 90 percent of the stores were closed. Moshiko’s Falafel is one of Jerusalem’s veteran falafel stands. Since March, owner Yair Shem Tov says the situation has been awful, but he keeps the place open to preserve the eatery’s reputation. “I was here during the period of the terror attacks and it wasn’t like this. It’s very sad and it’s going to get worse,” he predicted. “Between November and February there will be a catastrophe here. But we have to look forward and move on.”

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