Israel Restores Intercity Bus Lines Amid Pressure From Coronavirus Czar

After Haaretz reported that the paucity of buses is leading to overcrowding, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, who slashed transportation by 75 percent when lockdown began, orders normal activity to resume until 8 P.M

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Passengers board a bus in Tel Aviv
Passengers board a bus in Tel Aviv, October 7, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Transportation Minister Miri Regev on Thursday announced that intercity bus lines would resume a normal schedule of routes on Sunday, though only until 8 P.M.

Her decision represented a reversal of course, instead falling in line with view of coronavirus chief Ronni Gamzu. When the lockdown began three weeks ago, Regev decided to slash public transportation by 75 percent, ignoring the objections of Gamzu, who said it might actually increase incidences of the virus. He recently asked her to allow buses to resume a normal schedule.

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She consented after Haaretz reported that the paucity of buses was making it hard for essential workers to get to work and leading to overcrowding that endangered their health. Two organizations that lobby for people who use public transport said they have been flooded with complaints from frustrated passengers, who were forced to crowd into packed buses or wait more than an hour for the next one.

On weekends, there will still be no intercity buses, but municipal buses will operate a normal schedule on Fridays and on Saturday nights until 10 P.M.

Many people want Regev to soften the policy even further, however, by letting buses operate until 10 P.M., since many essential workers finish their shifts after 8 P.M. and are dependent on buses to get home.

A bus waits in traffic at a police checkpoint during the second coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, September 21, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The ministry said in a statement that during the current lockdown, an average of 700,000 people a day have used public transportation, compared to 300,000 during the first lockdown this spring, and it expects this number to rise after the Sukkot holiday ends this weekend. “Therefore, to avoid overcrowding on buses, the transportation minister has decided to increase public transport next week,” it added.

Data collected by the Health Ministry at Haaretz’s request shows that since the coronavirus first erupted in March, at least 794 people became infected while taking public transportation. And that is certainly an underestimate, the ministry added. In the past two weeks alone, 958 diagnosed patients are known to have used public transport, but it’s not clear whether they infected anyone.

A medical source said it’s often impossible to determine exactly where somebody caught the virus, but the fact that “almost 1,000 people were definitely infected on buses ought to spur the health and transportation ministries to conduct a much more in-depth investigation” – especially since “diagnosed patients use public transportation every day.”

Before changing her mind, Regev had argued that cutting back on public transport was necessary to enforce lockdown rules, since it would make it harder for people to travel.

Prof. Hagai Levine, head of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, shared Gamzu’s view that curtailing public transport would increase incidence of the virus, while also harming the poor, “who have no alternative.” The chairman of the association of nursing homes warned that this in turn could increase incidence of the illness among the elderly, since many nursing-home workers travel by bus.

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