Full Lockdown or Holiday Curfew: Israel Debates Steps to Curb COVID-19 Spike

Even with the current dire situation, health officials say Israel still has room to maneuver, although it is limited by political interests

Ido Efrati
Noa Landau
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People are seen wearing masks near Jerusalem's open-air market, Mahane Yehuda, June 6, 2020.
People are seen wearing masks near Jerusalem's open-air market, Mahane Yehuda, June 6, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Ido Efrati
Noa Landau

Israel's coronavirus cabinet approved Thursday night a two-week nationwide lockdown beginning on September 18, the eve of Rosh Hashanah. The decision is contingent on the approval of the wider cabinet, which will meet on Sunday.

Earlier Thursday, Israel's coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, presented cabinet ministers on Thursday with a proposal for a near-complete lockdown to be imposed starting after Rosh Hashanah next week.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, suggested first imposing a nationwide full lockdown ahead of the fall holidays and gradually transitioning to a near-complete-lockdown.

The coronavirus cabinet met to discuss which measures to employ to stem Israel's soaring infection rate.

Amid the steep, ongoing rise in infections, Gamzu and Health Ministry officials were expected to recommend a nationwide lockdown that would have included the shutting down of schools, restaurants, malls, outdoor markets and event venues.

Installation at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to symbolise Israel passing the 1,000 coronavirus death mark. September 7, 2020
Installation at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square to symbolise Israel passing the 1,000 coronavirus death mark. September 7, 2020.Credit: AFP

The proposal laid forth by Gamzu represented a milder version of the measures initially discussed by health officials. It calls for a lockdown only on holidays and allows for some businesses to remain open at 50-percent capacity.

Gripped by uncertainty, Israel’s management of the coronavirus crisis suffers from inconsistency and political influences. And yet, health officials say, even given the current picture – with more than 3,500 newly confirmed cases and 477 in serious condition on Wednesday – Israel still has room to maneuver for taking various steps of differing extents. Each one has costs and benefits. Still, events of the past few days indicate that the decision-making process is tainted by various interests and power bases that limit the range of options.

“Any option that differentiates between communities won’t survive politically,” said one official on the team of experts working with Gamzu. “After the business with travel to Uman” – the pilgrimage some Hasidim make to Uman, Ukraine, during Rosh Hashanah, which the government has tried to thwart – “and the failure to impose a full lockdown on ultra-Orthodox cities, it is clear that if there will be any full lockdown, it will be nationwide.”

Experts have a recurring message. “Everyone is focusing on the question of what to do, but the most important question is how to do it,” said one of them. He said that if the state doesn’t properly prepare and get the public on board, it won’t matter which steps are approved; a real solution to coronavirus won’t be found.

The direct advantage of full closure, the most aggressive measure on the table, is quickly reducing the spread of infection and easing the burden on the health system – from hospitals and ICUs to the wider circles of health maintenance organizations, testing systems and epidemiological tracing.

However, such a move bears social costs and indirect public health damage. “A full lockdown is the worst option. Its cost is enormous – from hundreds of millions to billions [of shekels],” says Prof. Eyal Leshem of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer. “Its sole benefit is pushing back the chain of infection.”

A full lockdown could incur dramatically reducing economic activity by at least 70 percent, closing down educational institutions, restricting movement, limiting public transportation and shutting down all activity involving crowds. 

Timing and the length of the lockdown are critical. A potential lockdown doesn’t have to last many weeks. One possibility being considered is two or three lockdowns during the High Holy Days that will include weekends in order to reduce economic damage.

Ultra-Orthodox men walking near a police cordon in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, September 6, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox men walking near a tape cordoning off a high coronavirus infection area in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, September 6, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“A full lockdown decision should be made in light of economic models. The number of lockdown days and the timing – midweek or on weekends – is significant regarding the efficacy of the lockdown,” says Leshem. “A full lockdown can be imposed in advance for specific periods, such as only on weekends – a move with a lower economic price while limiting some gatherings.”

'Red' cities

The attempt to impose a full lockdown on so-called red cities, which lead in infection rates, was supposed to be a significant step in implementing Gamzu’s traffic light plan. It included a carrot and a stick – closing the town, businesses and traffic together with an aid package and allocating testing resources for lowering the spread of infections. The nightly curfew was supposed to put the brakes on the rise of infection rates in these communities, with an emphasis on sustainability rather than a total reduction.

Gamzu was also supposed to change the trend in the rest of Israeli cities that were not red zones but did have rising rates. Mayors of Haredi cities halted the move by lobbying Netanyahu. At this stage, it’s clear that even if professionals think there is a benefit to this step, it would be blocked and not implemented. The events of last week emphasize that the traffic light concept and Gamzu’s differentiation have yet to fully seep into the public consciousness.

Another option trying to tiptoe through the minefields – reducing infection rates but not causing broader economic damage – is a limited version of a national lockdown. It could be a combination of a midweek nightly curfew and a full lockdown on weekends. The rationale is to allow a partial yet significant amount of economic activity while cutting back on evening activities that contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Such a lockdown could include outdoor entertainment in small groups or engaging in sports alone or with partners.

Other available options besides a full lockdown involve preventing large gatherings at cultural events, celebrations, restaurants, clubs and the like. The dramatic rise in the number of infections in the educational system would require more serious measures, such as reducing the size of so-called class capsules and even halting in-person learning at middle schools and high schools, or only keeping preschools and special education classes open. Another area is public transportation.

“No plan will succeed if we don’t understand that there is an emergency situation here, and if we don’t increase public trust and discipline,” asserts Prof. Shuki Shemer, a member of the team of experts working with Gamzu. “In the end, gatherings of one kind or another are what lead to high numbers of infections. When you take such action, you succeed in lowering the flames temporarily, so I don’t think that there is a first wave and a second wave – it’s the same outbreak. If we don’t succeed in preventing gatherings and protecting those who are 65 or older, nothing will help in the long run. This thing has to seep into our consciousness. A full lockdown is a solution that requires constant and methodical care. We need to learn to live with coronavirus year-round.”

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