'No Method in the Madness': Israeli Shop Owners Revolt, Open Despite Coronavirus Ban

Some businesses say they are protesting against pressure exerted on the government by ultra-Orthodox parties, others say their only goal is survival

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The Big shopping center in Regba, on the road between Acre and Nahariya, August 1, 2020.
The Big shopping center in Regba, on the road between Acre and Nahariya, August 1, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

Many retail establishments across Israel opened their doors on Saturday despite weekend restrictions the government imposed on them as part of its battle to contain the coronavirus while keeping the economy afloat.

Police officers were in evidence in a few of these shopping areas, most of which are suburban shopping centers or in Druze and Arab towns, but they mainly focused on enforcing mask requirements.

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Businesses deemed nonessential were required to close from Friday at 5 P.M. to Sunday at 5 A.M. after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided against lifting the weekend restrictions in a meeting with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Israel's new coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, on Friday.

A union of mall and retail store owners announced on Thursday they intend to flout the order and open their businesses anyway, arguing that "most cabinet ministers back opening malls," claiming the cabinet succumbed to "pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties," as Jewish law prohibits most work on Shabbat.  

Eran Shilon.
Eran Shilon.Credit: Ilan Assayag

At the Big Fashion shopping center in Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, Eran Shilon, who lives in Tel Aviv and is a co-owner of the Anipet chain of pet stores, says this weekend was the first time he defied government orders.

"They threw us into the fire in order to appease the ultra-Orthodox, without any logic," Shilon says. "Even if we were the only store that decided to open and even if it didn't make economic sense, I still would've opened. It's at the point where you realize that there's no method in the madness, that they're doing things that have no basis in medicine or in fact, someone decided let's go close all the stores where secular people buy on Shabbat, even in open-air shopping centers."

The Vanilia ice-cream franchise in Ashdod, August 1, 2020.
The Vanilia ice-cream franchise in Ashdod, August 1, 2020. Credit: Ilan Assayag

Other store-owners at Big Fashion say that for them the issue was keeping their business alive. "It was important to me to keep my staff on the payroll, and also because I thought opening would be worth it, but the decision to close the stores caused fewer people to come," says Ofer, the owner of a Vanilia ice-cream franchise who only agreed to identify by his first name. "Big Fashion lives on these weekends, and the reason we're open now is that there's no other option, I barely pay my own salary."

Nearly all the shops in the Druze village of Yarka in the north opened. During a one-hour circuit of the village not a single police officer was seen, and workers didn't seem worried about law enforcement. There, as in other communities where residents are celebrating Eid al-Adha, or "Feast of Sacrifice," store-owners anticipated large numbers of shoppers, including people who usually go abroad – mainly to Sinai or Turkey but this year were forced to celebrate at home due to the coronavirus – over the four-day holiday. But unfortunately for them, traffic in their businesses was light.

The souk in Acre's Old City, August 1, 2020.
The souk in Acre's Old City, August 1, 2020. Credit: Rami Shllush

In the Old City of Acre, a 15-minute drive from Yarka, most of the stores in the souk were open, even though a few police officers strolled around on patrol. But at the Big shopping center in Regba, on the road between Acre and Nahariya, most of the stores were closed, presumably because they're mainly branches of chains, and their young employees cannot decide to open the stores by themselves.

"We got an order from the bosses to open so we opened, there's no room for us to decide here. We were told to make sure we wear face masks and maintain social distancing, but at any rate the number of people here is pretty limited," a seller in a clothing store there said.

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