Coronavirus Committee Questions New Regulations, After Netanyahu Vows to Oust Chair

After new data traces few infections to pools, beaches, bars and restaurants, Knesset committee head, Yifat Shasha-Biton, asks that they be exempt from new coronavirus closures

Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis
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Chairwoman of the Coronavirus Committee Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks during a meeting, July 19, 2020.
Chairwoman of the Coronavirus Committee Yifat Shasha-Biton speaks during a meeting, July 19, 2020.Credit: Adina Wallman / Knesset Spokesperson
Jonathan Lis
Jonathan Lis

The Knesset coronavirus committee requested Sunday that the government make a series of exceptions to the new coronavirus regulations before holding a vote to ratify them, one day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would depose the committee chairwoman, Likud MK Yifat Shasha-Biton.

The committee requested that the beaches and pools be exempted from the weekend lockdown imposed by the new restrictions. The committee requested that restaurants be allowed to seat people at up to 35 percent capacity for indoor seating, and maintain general social distancing guidelines for outdoor seating. The committee also requested that workplaces and cafeterias be allowed to operate at 35 percent capacity, while tourist attractions, including those in the resort town of Eilat, be allowed to remain open.

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

By law, the Knesset has to approve measures published by the government within one week.

“I’m sure the government has good intentions in fighting the virus,” Shasha-Biton said at the start of the meeting. “We’re allowed to debate, to disagree and look at the various angles of the pandemic. We’ll take each restriction and examine its database, and we’ll decide for the good of the public. We have an obligation to study all the aspects and see how we create the delicate balance between the fight against the pandemic and the heavy price we’re paying in other areas.”

With regard to the government’s request to close swimming pools, Shasha-Biton said: “People who have money can go to a hotel pool and those who don’t can’t get out and do anything for their soul.”

Last week the committee rejected a government request to approve the closure of swimming pools and gyms, citing a lack of data on infection rates from these facilities. Following an interview on Saturday’s edition of the TV show “Meet the Press,” during which Shasha-Biton said the committee would likely not change its mind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bureau announced that he would remove Shasha-Biton from her position as committee chairwoman.

Last week coalition chairman and Likud MK Miki Zohar said he would not send the Knesset committee any more government requests for approval of new measures. However, at the end of the week, the government secretary, Tzahi Braverman, did ask the committee to approve the government’s new restrictions.

Health Ministry representatives presented data to the committee on the places where infected people were identified, after it had failed to do so in the meeting last week. According to the data, from July 10 to July 16, 7,998 people were infected and contact tracing identified the place of infection for 2,227 of them. According to the figures, 123 were infected at events, 106 in religious institutions, 89 at entertainment venues (11 at bars and the rest at restaurants and coffee shops), and four at pools or the beach.

Deputy Health Ministry Director General Prof. Itamar Grotto said at Sunday’s meeting that “hospitals are burdened at the moment with coronavirus patients. A moderately ill person also needs treatment. From the moment a person is infected until their condition becomes serious takes about two weeks. We are looking ahead with concern. Even if nobody leaves their home, we’ll continue to see a rise in the figures.” According to Grotto,

At Sunday’s meeting the committee discussed the closure of restaurants beginning Tuesday and the closing of gyms, sports and dance studios. It also discussed a closure, to be imposed from Friday 5 P.M. to Sunday 5 A.M. of shops, malls, markets, hairdressers, beauty salons, zoos, animal petting corners, museums, exhibition spaces, swimming pools, tourist attractions and cable cars. According to Grotto, the weekend closures are expected to reduce new infections by 20 percent. Another restriction the government is seeking – closure of the beaches on the weekends – has to be passed as a law by the Knesset.

A senior Likud official told Haaretz that despite the prime minister’s threats to remove Shasha-Biton as committee chairwoman, a decision has not been made as it is unclear whether a majority in Likud favors the move. To replace Shasha-Biton Likud needs a preliminary approval by the Knesset House Committee, headed by Eitan Ginzburg of Kahol Lavan. Likud has not asked the House Committee to convene a meeting on the matter of Shasha-Biton’s dismissal.

Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday that he would work to prevent Shasha-Biton’s dismissal as committee chairwoman. “We’re walking a tightrope,” a source in Kahol Lavan said, adding that if Likud raised the matter in the House Committee, Kahol Lavan members would walk out of the meeting but would not vote against her dismissal. According to the source, the committee chairmanship is in the hands of Likud, “Likud has the power to decide who heads it. If we interfere with Likud in such a decision, they’ll interfere later with our internal decisions and that’s not a situation we want to be in.”

The House Committee has 11 members representing the coalition, including four from Kahol Lavan, and five from opposition parties. Even if Kahol Lavan members do not support Shasha-Biton’s dismissal as chairwoman, Likud would still have a majority to do so. Sources in Kahol Lavan said they hoped that Likud would not go farther on the matter considering Kahol Lavan’s opposition. Kahol Lavan’s Yizhar Shai, who is minister of science, technology and space, said in an interview on Kan Broadcasting’s morning news commentary show on Sunday that he presumed his party would let Likud decide the matter, but he hoped things would not reach that point.

MK Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) told Army Radio on Sunday that dismissing Shasha-Biton “would be a victory over the coronavirus and would not move the country one millimeter in that direction because she is not the only member who opposed [the government’s new measures] last week,” and the committee would not be persuaded by her dismissal. “The Knesset is supposed to ask questions, obtain data, hear experts, and hear the victims too…The government can come to the Knesset, to the relevant committee and persuade it, not by threats, to show data and persuade the Knesset and the public.”

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