Israel's National Security Council has finalized its recommendation for the lifting of the coronavirus closure based on the guiding principle that lucrative industries will be first to resume economic activity while recreation, sports and tourism will be last. The strategy, formulated by government offices, think tanks and academics, will be brought before the Knesset for approval in the coming week.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to lift restrictions as soon as Thursday of this week, although the exact date has yet to be announced. A main concern is that the public will fail to cooperate with a re-imposition of restrictions if infection rates surge as the exit plan is implemented.
The plan, which was formulated based on more than ten alternative programs, suggests that restrictions be lifted in four main phases, with a two-week gap between each phase to allow a situation assessment.
The first sector to resume activity will be tech and finance, as well as parts of the import and export industries. Officials estimate that in those sectors, which employ more than ten percent of the population, it would be easier to control workplace conditions and enforce compliance of stringent rules on hygiene, social distancing and the wearing of face masks.
Public transportation will also expand in the first phase, as well as partial activity of the education system. Special education and preschools will be the first to resume operation. In addition, the council is considering allowing high schools teachers to prepare small groups of students for their matriculation exams.
Public offices assisting the aforementioned sectors may also return to work, meaning that the public sector's activity will expand to 50 percent in the first phase of the exit plan.
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The second phase will entail resuming commerce and opening retail stores, excluding large shopping centers. In addition, children aged 6-10 will return to elementary schools.
The third phase will include reopening cafes, restaurants and hotels – as long as they meet new hygiene and social distancing requirements. Most of the education system will return to activity at this stage, except for high-risk populations. Schools will also be required to adapt to strict hygiene and social distancing demands, and large gatherings or crowded events will be prohibited.
The plan recommends that university students continue with online teaching until the end of the current academic year. According to the data examined by the National Security Council, higher education institutions have adapted rather well to remote learning and it was determined that reopening campuses is inadvisable as it is likely to raise infection rates without contributing to the economy.
In the fourth phase, the leisure and entertainment industries will go back to operation, including culture, sports, large shopping malls and flights.
The government will only carry out the fourth phase when the pandemic is “under full control” and in line with how the rest of the world manages to curb the spread of the virus. People over 60 and at-risk populations will not resume normal activity throughout the four phases.
In an optimistic scenario, and assuming that the two-week buffers will be successful, this exit strategy will take two months to implement. However, it is more likely to drag into the summer months.
“We can't see how people will go on vacation during the summer,” said a source familiar with the plan, as the council hopes that lost work and school days will be made up in August.
The final decision about when and how to lift the closure will be taken by the government in accordance with the incidence of illness after the Passover holiday. Officials fear a spike in infection rates due to the Passover Mimouna, Ramadan and Israel’s Independence Day. If some areas remain more infected than others, harsher restrictions will likely be imposed differentially.
Another foreseen challenge is explaining to the public that resuming activity does not mean going back to normal and that people must continue to exercise a cautious routine. “It must be clear that this is what 2020 is going to look like,” a source familiar with the plan said.
The NSC predicts a second wave of outbreak come fall, therefore the exit strategy also includes a boosting of the health system and the preparation of more hospital beds, ventilators and medical staff. The assumption is that the more coronavirus patients receive treatment, the faster the country could go back to its normal routine.
The council is also discussing the possibility of combining serological tests (which identify antibodies in the bloodstream and whether a person is immune to the virus) to give an indication of who can return to work.
“We don’t want to reach a situation in which we’ll have to go more than two phases back. We’ll move forward slowly and try to find the balance in order to build trust between the population and the authorities,” a source familiar with the plan said.
The Prime Minister’s office stressed in a statement that “the plan, as it is detailed in the media, is a mere suggestion and hasn’t been approved yet.”