Knesset Coronavirus Committee Refuses to Sanction Cabinet’s Closure of Gyms, Pools

Coalition whip angling to oust the head of the subcommittee for defying the government

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Likud MKs Miki Zohar, Yifat Shasha-Biton and Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish attend a meeting of the Coronavirus Committee, July 13, 2020.
Likud MKs Miki Zohar, Yifat Shasha-Biton and Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kish attend a meeting of the Coronavirus Committee, July 13, 2020.Credit: Adina Wallman / Knesset Spokesperson
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

Coalition whip Miki Zohar said Monday that the cabinet would no longer turn to the Knesset Coronavirus Committee to ratify cabinet decisions, after the committee voted against a cabinet order to close swimming pools and gyms.

At first Zohar threatened to oust the committee head and fellow Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton for refusing to ratify the clauses of the cabinet decision regarding pools and gyms. “You’re through, we’ll replace you,” Zohar shouted at Shasha-Biton following the vote. Later, he reneged on that threat, but said the government would bypass the Coronavirus Committee in the future.

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The role of the committee is to oversee the steps the cabinet is taking in the fight against the coronavirus. The government can seek to have its decisions ratified by other Knesset committees, such as the Constitution Committee or the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

On Monday the Coronavirus Committee ratified all other restrictions cited a cabinet order issued last week, including shuttering all event halls and bars and limiting restaurant occupancy to 20 people indoors and 30 people outdoors. But the panel refused to ratify the part of the order calling for the closure of gyms and pools, citing an absence of data to indicate that these venues are coronavirus hot spots.

Following the vote, Zohar posted on Twitter: “I regret that a Knesset member from the coalition chose a populist and irresponsible approach at the expense of the authorities that are battling to prevent the coronavirus pandemic and decided to act against the position of the coalition. Instead of ... helping the government to manage this crisis responsibly, she chose to put a spoke in the wheels of the coalition,” tweeted Zohar. “We cannot tolerate such conduct.”

Chairwoman of the Coronavirus Committee Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks during a meeting, July 13, 2020.Credit: Adina Wallman / Knesset Spokesperson

Kahol Lavan responded to Zohar’s threat by saying: “Given the importance of the Knesset’s function as a supervisory body, it is not appropriate to remove the chairman of the Coronavirus Committee, Yifat Shasha-Biton. If the Likud promotes a vote on the issue we will not take part in it,” the party said in a statement.

A few minutes before the committee voted on the government order, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he will have strict directives drawn up that will allow for swimming pools to reopen, with greater enforcement of the rules. He said gyms will remain closed and their owners will be compensated.The Coronavirus Committee reconvened, in accordance with protocol, for a second vote on exempting pools and gyms from the order. During the debate, Zohar said: “This decision contravenes the position of the prime minister, the health minister and professionals, and the coalition will not stand for it. We will be forced, truly with great sadness, to replace Yifat Shasha-Biton.” Zohar added that the cabinet will submit a new request on the matter, “and all the to-do here is superfluous.”

Before the panel session, Shasha-Biton asked Netanyahu to remove pools and gyms from the closures, since a majority of the committee members object to those steps, but cabinet members refused to back down.

Members of the Coronavirus Committee argued that the Health Ministry has not presented data on infections contracted at swimming pools, and that the data on gyms – in which 35 people have contracted the virus since June – show that they are not hot spots. Dr. Emilia Anis, director of the Health Ministry’s Epidemiology Division, told the committee that the desire to close the pools is because visitors don’t wear face masks, “there’s crowding and it’s difficult to maintain social distancing.”

The Israel Association of Public Health Physicians, in contrast, called on the panel to allow pools to reopen, saying there is no evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted through water, that chlorine seems to render the virus inactive and that swimming contributes to a healthy lifestyle. The association recommended allowing outdoor pools to open and to weigh allowing indoor pools to open only for swimming.

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