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Reopening Shops Risks Sending Israel Into a Third Lockdown

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Shuttered stores in Jerusalem during the coronavirus pandemic, March 2020.
Shuttered stores in Jerusalem during the coronavirus pandemic, March 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the head of the Health Ministry’s public health services, didn’t even try to hide her disappointment over the decision to allow street-front stores to open Sunday, as long as they keep it to four customers at a time.

“It’s hard to watch as the Health Ministry presents a responsible, thorough and data-based framework that provides basic principles for a safe exit from the lockdown, and they simply cast it aside,” she told Army Radio late last week, after the government’s decision.

All the ministry’s explanations and warnings failed to delay store openings to a later stage. Ministers were nearly unanimous in supporting the reopening as the least-bad alternative.

Letting street-front stores reopen violates several principles of the ministry’s lockdown exit strategy.

First, it was originally slated to happen at the next stage of the government’s phased reopening plan – two weeks after school was resumed through fourth grade. Not enough time has passed to assess whether that move will trigger another rise in new cases.

Second, stores were only supposed to reopen after the R number, a measure of the coronavirus’ spread, had fallen to 0.8 or less, or with 500 or fewer new cases per day. (An R number of 1 means each person with the coronavirus passes it on to one other person.)

The number of new cases per day was above 500 as of Saturday, when Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science said the R number was 0.96, and 0.84 for serious cases.

Pressure from retailers

So, why are stores now allowed to open? It was another battle in the government’s deliberations over whether to give more weight to the economy or public health, with pressure from big and small retailers playing a big part.

This time, the economy won out. First, street-front stores are expected to contribute marginally to any increase in new cases, assuming they stick to the standards for social distancing. Also, keeping stores closed is costly for the economy.

“It’s the least-bad alternative. We had to allow some kind of commerce to take place in the country,” said Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the coronavirus czar.

Another inescapable fact was that even before a decision was made to let shops reopen, a decision had been taken at the grassroots: More and more merchants were opening in defiance of the directives. The politicians didn’t want to lose all control of the situation, so they gave a green light for traffic already on the move.

And now Alroy-Preis has her worries. “Although everyone is saying that you look at everything only from a health perspective, we had crafted a lockdown exit plan with the first exit based on 2,000 new cases a day, and that was because we understood you couldn’t keep the country closed for weeks on end,” she told Army Radio.

“We took the risk on condition that we were embarking on a gradual program with defined stages. In the end, we started at 2,000 cases a day, but now all the benchmarks are being ignored. We have to act carefully or we’ll regret it.”

As she sees it, even if street-front stores are relatively safe, “every additional opening brings more contact between people and causes the R number to rise. If we don’t wait to open street-front shops and allow other reopenings, we’ll end up in a third lockdown, which will bring even more economic harm.”

Alroy-Preis noted that the R number remains high all over the country, in both Arab and Jewish areas. The proposal of opening stores only in so-called green cities, the ones with the lowest rates of the coronavirus under Israel’s “traffic-light system,” would have simply encouraged people from yellow and orange cities to shop in green cities, bringing COVID-19 with them.

Born to shop

Another factor that hasn’t received enough attention – and one Alroy-Preis only hinted at – is that if the R number starts rising again, the next critical stage of the exit plan, which would let fifth-, sixth-, 11th- and 12th-graders return to school, will have to be put off. In other words, Israel will be exchanging education for shopping.

“Street-front shops aren’t a major source of contagion, but looking at it collectively, at the point we’re at right now, every easing can raise the R number a little and also lets other sectors of the economy demand that they reopen. Each one has a good case,” said Segal of the Weizmann Institute.

“It’s a matter of setting priorities. If we decide that something is a priority right now and we want to reopen it, we need to make clear that this will delay the opening of other things, like the school system.”

Meanwhile, amid all the brouhaha about store reopenings, a much more dramatic decision was made: not to divide first and second graders into smaller groups, “capsules,” as originally required. This happened even though the consensus among health experts is that capsules are needed.

Decision-makers face enormous dilemmas every time they debate the original exit strategy. It’s their job to manage risks and decide between less-than-perfect alternatives, including deviations from the original plan.

But the question is whether they’re taking reasonable risks or repeating the same mistakes made during the exit from last spring’s lockdown. Those errors quickly led Israel into the second lockdown. Are we now heading for a third one? The contagion trend line will soon tell us.

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