Shopping malls and markets across Israel, shut due to the coronavirus outbreak, will only be allowed to reopen after the development of a tracking system that would monitor all visitors, Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said at a Monday meeting.
All customers will be required to install a tracking app on their phone to enter shopping malls and markets, once these reopen. The app, which according to Bar Siman Tov is already in stages of development, will be part of a control system that would allow authorities to keep a tab on the number of visitors at any given moment.
The app would let authorities track the locations visited by confirmed and suspected coronavirus patients, allowing rapidly conduct contact tracing. It remains unclear whether shopping mall managers would have any access to the data collected by the app and whether the applications will continue to monitor people after they leave the mall. Moreover, app development responsibilities will be placed on mall managers, but it is uncertain who will oversee them.
Speaking at a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and representatives on behalf of Israel’s National Security Council and market vendor associations, Bar Siman Tov explained that customers would be asked to scan a code before entering a market or mall, which would let the app track where they are going.
The app “will know who has been to the market, which route they took and who was near them, so that if there had been an infection in the market, we can tell who was there and put these people into quarantine without having to put a large group into quarantine,” Bar Siman Tov said.
According to Bar Siman Tov, a confirmed case at a mall or market without use of the app would mean “sending hundreds or thousands of people into quarantine, and we don’t want that.” He added that “this isn’t any complicated technological development. It’s all things that already exist.”
Other preventive measures, such as limiting the number of customers inside the mall at any time, an obligation to wear face masks and taking visitors’ temperatures, are also expected to be employed.
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The model for reopening malls and markets is based on measures that were put in place in other countries, where visitors were required to install an app on their smartphone that issues them a personal code they scan at the entrance. This means data may be collected at any commercial building or complex.
Directors at Israeli shopping malls were notified last week by the Finance Ministry that in order to resume operations, they have to be ready with a tracking system. They took the request to tech companies, who began working on developing the system.
Mall management will be required to finance the development, so although it is not yet clear whether they will have access to the data collected, they will likely get access to data concerning visitors’ consumer habits. The system could show which stores were visited by each customer and for how long, and which areas are more popular than others.
According to a source involved in developing the technology for shopping malls, crowd control will be conducted using two separate systems: An automated system would track the number of people present at any given moment, complemented by the app installed on visitors’ phones. Management could also cross-reference data from the app with security camera footage, which could provide valuable commercial information, the source said.
The source said that some companies suggested developing similar systems for shopping malls in the past, but these proposals were rejected over privacy concerns. The proposed systems are based on a model implemented in China, the source added.
Bar Siman Tov said Monday that markets would reopen in the foreseeable future, given that number of new coronavirus infections and of patients on life support remain relatively low.
Netanyahu said at the meeting that authorities should wait until after two weeks have passed since restrictions began to be loosened, which would be on Sunday. “One of the things we don’t know is what the effect of reopening would be… We’ll have an initial indication on Friday,” he said.
Tali Friedman, chairman of the Mahane Yehuda market vendor association, said during the meeting: “I think creating an app is a great idea, but it’s not the right measure, because we’re not talking about thousands who would show up at the market and we’ll have to track them, but something closer to a line in a supermarket. No more than several hundred people could go into the Mahane Yehuda market.”
She also cautioned that waiting for the app development to be completed could cause irreversible financial damage to many vendors.
Leaders of vendor unions in other markets told Haaretz they hadn’t been approached by the government concerning such an app, and added they fear it would take a long time to develop.
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon, as well as some chairs of vendor unions across Israel, claimed that treating malls and markets alike is wrong. They argued that markets should be treated as storefronts on streets, which have already been reopened.
“I still didn’t get an answer as to what the difference is between supermarkets and open-air markets,” Leon said. “I think we should be comparing supermarkets and markets, rather than markets and shopping malls. It’s something else altogether.”