Coronavirus cases in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak increased by 27.8 percent overnight Tuesday evening, according to updated figures released by Israel's Health Ministry on Wednesday, raising fears in this particularly hard-hit community.
The Tel Aviv suburb has become a focal point of the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, and that can clearly be seen by anyone stepping into its deserted streets. On any other day, certainly a week before Passover, Bnei Brak would be crammed with tens of thousands of shoppers. But on this Passover eve, it’s all bitter herbs.
Police officers stopped cars and questioned those trying to enter the city, even as government officials were still debating whether to impose a total lockdown on it. Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein warned against such a move. “You can’t build a new prison – Bnei Brak prison. The reality won’t allow it,” he said. “The residents won’t stand for it and this recommendation will only create pushback. You can’t turn Bnei Brak into a ghetto. A closure won’t heal the sickness.”
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At the welfare office on Kahaneman Street, one could take in the Home Front Command soldiers, none of whom were wearing protective gear, making preparations. This office was supposed to receive information about coronavirus victims and those required to enter quarantined. Despite the agreement between Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Interior Minister Arye Dery about transferring encrypted information through welfare offices, the information wasn’t coming in – the result of legal delays connected to protecting the privacy of those tested.
Not far from there, on Avnei Nezer Street, dozens of people stood outside a local grocery store, waiting for their turn to enter. The men kept their distance from one another and mainly kept quiet. A local resident, who came to do shopping with two of his children, said that staying at home with four kids isn’t easy. “They’re climbing the walls,” he said. “But there’s no choice, we are observing the guidelines, we leave home only for essentials, and once a week we go shopping.”
Like others in the city, he still don’t know how his family is going to do their Passover shopping or make other necessary preparations for the holiday, like burning the hametz, or leavened food, on the morning before it starts. “We will do what they tell us to do,” he said. “We read the [ultra-Orthodox] Hamevaser newspaper every morning and act according to the instructions.”
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On the adjacent street, one of the health maintenance organizations had set up a coronavirus testing station. A few hours later the municipality would shut it down, arguing that the station was situated in a densely populated area and put the residents at risk. But until that happened, four HMO staffers in full protective gear were receiving people to be tested. One resident came with his teenage son. “He’s had symptoms for a couple of days,” the father said. “I’m pretty convinced he has the coronavirus.”
His son was having a hard time explaining to the staffers why he needed a test, and the staff was about to send him to get approval to take one. “He was with a coronavirus patient the whole day of Purim,” the father called out from a distance, and the staffers immediately brought him in to be tested.
The authorities have started the work of locating those who need to go into isolation and bringing them to the compound set up for them, but until the updated information reaches the municipality, it cannot contact the people who are supposed to occupy it.
On Tuesday Rubinstein named Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa as the head of the city’s coronavirus task force. “This is a state of emergency in the country and in our crowded and infected city, and we need the best forces to help us,” said Rubinstein after meeting with Numa.
“This is a national mission of top importance and urgency,” said Numa. “We’re talking about a unique population that needs unique solutions.”
On Tuesday, the staff of the emergency medical department at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer outside Tel Aviv was directed to isolate patients from ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods that have a high incidence of the coronavirus – including patients who show no symptoms. The policy includes residents of Bnei Brak and Elad and the West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit, all of which are having major outbreaks.
In addition, on Monday the Health Ministry instructed police officers operating in Bnei Brak and the ultra-Orthodox enclaves of Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from the coronavirus, after two weeks of saying there was no need for protective gear.
With reporting by Josh Breiner and Ido Efrati.