‘Panic in the Neighborhood’: Touring Two of Israel’’s Coronavirus Epicenters

In Modi’in’s Avnei Hen neighborhood, where thousands are in home quarantine, the streets are empty, while in Kiryat Yearim, there is a difference of opinion over whether a total blockade of the community would be better

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A supermarket in Kiryat Yearim on March 17, 2020.
A supermarket in Kiryat Yearim on March 17, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The retail center near the Avnei Hen neighborhood of Modi’in was quiet on Tuesday afternoon. Most of the businesses were shuttered and if you ask the few shoppers who were in the vicinity, the stores that remained open should close too. From their standpoint, the time had come to declare a total lockdown of the neighborhood over the coronavirus outbreak in the community, which lies between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

“That’s how the Chinese have managed to curb the virus in their country,” said a shopper at a convenience store that was open. “We need to deploy soldiers with weapons – like in China.”

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His friend standing nearby said his wife was in home quarantine with their daughter. “She goes to a school where they’ve put the children in quarantine, and I’m the only one who can leave home, ” he said. “They’re sleeping in one room, and I’m in another.”

In response to rising numbers of the coronaviruses cases around the country, the Israeli government slashed the number of people who are allowed to come to work, barred public gatherings of more than 10 people and then on Tuesday ordered all retailers other than those providing essentials such as food to close and for people to remain at home for the most part unless they were going to work.

On Tuesday, prior to the latest nationwide restrictions, even a cursory look at Avnei Hen revealed how different the situation there was from in most of the the country. That’s not surprising in light of the rapid spread of the virus over the past several days – and the fear that has gripped the residents.

Thousands of residents are in quarantine and so far, 14 of them have been diagnosed with the virus. The tally is expected to rise after emergency medical personnel provide the results of coronavirus tests taken by dozens of other residents who came in contact with carriers.

Disinfection in Modi'in, March 17, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Traffic on the streets was light on Tuesday, and the playgrounds were empty. By evening, the city had closed the playgrounds off with red tape designating them a danger zone.

A few hours earlier, vehicles with loudspeakers went through Avnei Hen warning people not to leave their homes. This was because a large number of public buildings, including synagogues and educational institutions, were being disinfected. The operation had to be halted for hours due to heavy rain, but it resumed. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the neighborhood without a relative or neighbor in quarantine.

“My daughter had contact with someone infected and went into quarantine,” said the man who advocated adopting the Chinese approach to the virus.

“There are a lot fewer shoppers, but our situation is still okay,” the convenience store owner noted, but he added: “There is real panic in the neighborhood.”

H., who asked not to be identified by name, is the mother of two daughters who are in quarantine after they were found to have had contact with a confirmed carrier. According to WhatsApp text messaging groups, she said, there are already 30 neighborhood residents who have been infected. “There are children and parents who have been infected with the virus, so all of the children have been put in quarantine.”

Members of the Schlesinger family, who live in the neighborhood, were among those quarantined on Tuesday. One of their children, Yonatan, who is two and a half, was not afraid of the two strangers who showed up at the door wearing masks. His siblings, Uri, Nadav and Avia, are students at schools where carriers of the virus have been confirmed.

“There’s a boy at school who was diagnosed as a carrier and both of his parents are in the hospital,” Hadar, the children’s mother, said. Her children, she said, stay in touch with classmates through video chat.

A medical worker carries a sample for a coronavirus test in Kiryat Yearim, March 17, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Their father works in an essential service and will be required to live in isolation separately from the rest of the family.

Nadav is old enough to understand that this isn’t a school vacation. “It’s fun, but it’s not,” he acknowledged. “It’s vacation, but it’s also boring at home, and it would be better to be with my friends.”

Nearby, the Weiss family, who moved to Israel a year and a half ago from Canada, are also in quarantine. The father, Aharon, was diagnosed on Tuesday morning and the entire family has gone into isolation with him.

“Over the past few days, I really haven’t felt well. I’ve been really weak and have had a high fever,” said Aharon, while standing at the door to his home with his wife, Shaina, and their four children. “Today, I got up feeling much better.”

Aharon Weiss said he wanted to send a message about the importance of following the Health Ministry’s directives, which he said were mandatory and could save lives. “We have to take the directives seriously and not leave home,” he said. “This isn’t a vacation day.”

Like some others infected with the virus, Aharon was apparently infected while attending synagogue on Purim for a megilla reading, the recitation of the Book of Esther. “There were a lot of people there,” he said, implying that others may also have been infected.

The Weisses said they have ordered a lot of what they have needed and will be well provided for in the coming weeks. “Our friends have been helping with what we need, and everything is okay,” their oldest daughter said reassuringly.

A supermarket in Kiryat Yearim on March 17, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

‘People would argue and rebel'

Another outbreak has arisen in the ultra-Orthodox community of Kiryat Yearim, to the east of Modi’in, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Eight carriers had been diagnosed as of Monday, but nine more were added on Tuesday. About a quarter of the community’s residents, some 2,000 people, are now in quarantine.

A local grocery put up a clear partition to separate shoppers from store employees. Signs on the partition read “the Messiah’s on the way” and “there is no other,” a reference to the almighty.

One woman who was shopping at the store said she was not concerned about being infected, “but my family is in a total panic.” The rest of her family is quarantined because they were at a synagogue at the same time as a man who was later diagnosed with the virus. Asked if she had become the family’s delivery person, she quipped: “They’d better not turn me into a delivery person.”

Several young men at the store were loading up carts. It turned out that they were not store employees. They were from the local authority, which hired them to help provide necessities for the many quarantined residents.

The recent talk in Kiryat Yearim has centered on the prospect that a total closure might be imposed on the small community. “There are residents who oppose a closure and those in favor,” said local resident Yosef Nagar. “I think they need to apply a closure on the community for two weeks to clean things up, and that’s it.”

He said he doesn’t mean that people would be barred from leaving home, but only that they would not be able to leave Kiryat Yearim. “Confining people to their homes would not last,” he predicted. “People would argue and rebel. What is killing us in the uncertainty. People are sitting at home, waiting for symptoms and testing, and they don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Disinfection being performed in Modi'in on March 17, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Another resident who came into the store had a different take on things. “I think they need to totally stop with the quarantine and the restrictions. In the end, everybody will get infected so there’s no use whatsoever,” he said, calling the current policy akin to psychological warfare.

But an official said a total closure of Kiryat Yearim was not in the offing. “There’s really no way to effectively close off the community so it’s not going to happen for the foreseeable future,” he said.

In the office of the head of the Kiryat Yearim local council, Yitzhak Ravitz, who serves in effect as the community’s mayor, the staff was anxious. An announcement was about to be issued informing the public as to where newly diagnosed carriers had been prior to their diagnosis. The staff were recording the announcement.

“Get the announcement out already. The residents are stressed and want to know the details,” one of Ravitz’s secretaries pleaded.

“There’s someone sitting a floor above us who is taking grocery orders from families in quarantine,” Ravitz said. “This morning we have already had 52 orders.”

Meanwhile, an official told Haaretz that the possibility of the community being locked down was not under discussion, as it was it was not really feasible to enact it.

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