Israel's Coronavirus Czar Says Lockdown Can End When Cases Down to 2,000 a Day

Ronni Gamzu tells ministers drop must be accompanied by lowering of R number; over past week, new cases have averaged two to four times higher than proposed level

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Masked people at a bus stop in Jerusalem, October 5, 2020.
Masked people at a bus stop in Jerusalem, October 5, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu has proposed that Israel not end its national lockdown until it is down to 2,000 new cases a day and an R number, the average number of people every infected person will go on to infect, of 0.8.

The proposal, which is backed by the Health Ministry, was presented to the coronavirus cabinet on Monday during a meeting on the conditions for exiting the lockdown. The meeting ended without any new decisions being taken, as officials said another week was necessary to assess the situation, and the cabinet will meet again on Monday of next week. 

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While recent data suggests a possible slowdown in the spread of the virus, for most of the last week, the daily number of new cases has been two to four times higher than Gamzu’s proposed level of 2,000. Thus, to meet Gamzu’s goals, the ministry said the country would need to remain in lockdown for at least another week, until October 14, with the data to be reviewed on October 12.

The proposal also details what would happen if only one of the two conditions were met. If the R number falls below 0.8 but the average daily number of new cases is still higher than 2,000, the ministry proposes keeping the lockdown regulations in place but interpreting them more leniently. If the infection coefficient is higher than 0.8, however, the ministry wants the lockdown extended for another week.

Small changes in the R number can have a major impact on the number of new cases. For instance, the ministry said, with an R number of 0.9 and 5,000 new cases a day, it would take Israel at least 39 days to reach a level of no more than 2,000 new cases a day. But an R number of 0.8, 0.7 or 0.6 would lower that number to 18 days, 11.5 days and eight days, respectively.

The ministry’s proposal did not specify what each stage of a gradual exit from lockdown would entail. But it did recommend setting up special task forces to determine how to reopen the school system and the country's international airport, and how to create digital records of who is visiting businesses.

Once the general lockdown ends, it advocates returning to Gamzu’s so-called traffic light plan, under which different locales would be subject to different restrictions depending on how high their incidence of the virus is. In “red” cities, meaning those with a high incidence of the disease, it recommends maintaining or reinstating a full lockdown, including bans on gatherings and closing schools, while offering intensive aid to the population.

During the meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that officials need at least another week to know whether the lockdown can be eased, as it is too soon to ascertain whether there is a true slowdown in the spread of the disease. Netanyahu also alluded to news that Environmental Minister Gila Gamliel spent Yom Kippur at the home of her husband's parents in Tiberias, 150 kilometers away from her home, in violation of the lockdown, saying that "everyone must respect the rules. We have no privilege to diverge from this – not the falafel vendor, not the member of Knesset, and not the minister in the government. We are all obligated to the rules." 

Police struggle with protests

The Kahol Lavan party said at the same meeting that it supports canceling restrictions on protests as soon as the lockdown begins to be eased. The government approved restrictions last week that included barring protesters from traveling over a kilometer from their homes. Kahol Lavan said that if the spread of the virus slows down, it will support easing the lockdown beginning on Wednesday, or by Wednesday of next week at the latest.

At the same meeting, acting Police Commissioner Moti Cohen said it was more difficult to enforce restrictions in recent anti-Netanyahu protests than before because they are now being held in hundreds of locales. He added there was a lack of discipline regarding restrictions among some of the country's ultra-Orthodox population.

Saturday saw tens of thousands protesting against Netanyahu at hundreds of locations around the country in light of the ban on traveling further than a kilometer away from one's home. Nearly 40 people were arrested in Tel Aviv during the protests. 

Footage from the protests showed many incidents of violence on the part of police, whose officers shoved, hit, tackled, and roughly arrested protesters. Protesters were also targeted with violence by civilians, with one protester taken to a hospital after being punched in the face. 

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