Israel's Public Health Chief Warns That Another Lockdown Is Imminent

As stores reopened on Sunday for the first time in nearly two months, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis warned that 'the pandemic will get out of control' if the coronavirus cabinet continues to ignore Health Ministry recommendations

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The open-air Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem, November 8, 2020.
The open-air Mamilla Mall in Jerusalem, November 8, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel may have to enter a third lockdown as early as December if the economy continues to open up in an unchecked manner, warned a top Health Ministry official on Sunday, as storefronts opened for the first time in nearly two months.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services, criticized the opening of shops, which she said went “against the Health Ministry’s exit strategy.”

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“If the coronavirus cabinet continues to make decisions that go against Health Ministry recommendations, the pandemic will get out of control,” she said on Kan Bet public radio.

Alroy-Preis added that the rate in which coronavirus carriers infect others “is rising at a very fast pace, and not just in one population or another, but across populations.” She noted that among the non-Arab and non-Haredi populations, each patient infects an average of one other person; the coronavirus cabinet last month decided that the next phase of reopenings would not occur unless that number stayed below 0.8.

Reopening more parts of the economy depends on reducing the number of daily confirmed new cases from around 650 to 500, said Alroy-Preis. The country’s current R number – the average number of people each infected person will go on to infect – is close to one, up from about 0.6, which was expected but serves as a reminder that reopening should be done carefully, she said.

Street shops opened on Sunday morning for this first time since September 25, following a decision by the coronavirus cabinet to loosen restrictions amid a decline in infections. The number of customers in each shop is limited to four, and shops in coronavirus hotspots will remain closed, as will shops in large malls.

Store owners and salespeople who spoke to Haaretz said they were happy to return to work, but many expressed frustration with the situation as well as fear of a third lockdown.

The commercial center of Yokne’am Ilit, outside Haifa, seemed sleepy on Sunday afternoon. Two young adults sat at a table outside a small grocery store drinking coffee; an older woman with a walker sat on a bench alongside her caregiver. The sounds of the song “Let the Sunshine In” wafted out of Uzi Levy’s clothing store. While the sun’s rays came in, few customers did. “It was nice, but people bought very little,” Levy said. In the window of the adjacent storefront mannequin parts were piled in shopping carts and much of the space was empty. “[The owner] packed up most of the store today,” Levy said. “She was here less than a year, opened two months before the coronavirus [began] and then ‘boom.’”

At Shuk Bezalel in Tel Aviv, Moshiko Levy began arranging the pots in his housewares stall. “It feels as if we only breathed a little. Making a living isn’t important, the main thing is going out to work,” he said, but added: “I have debts, I took [money] from all kinds of people in order to live. I didn’t have a penny for two months. I owe a few thousand shekels to people.”

Oded Babai, a clothing manufacturer and importer based on Jaffa Road in south Tel Aviv, has been demonstrating together with colleagues for a few weeks. He has called the cabinet ministers “feudal” during protests; on Sunday he went farther, saying they are “criminals.”

“For eight months we’ve barely worked. They ruined us. I do not trust this government. Would the members of this cabinet forgo their salaries for eight months? They destroyed my business,” Babai said.

Moshe Siso, who for 30 years has had jewelry stores on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, is like a mirror image of Babai. Last month he told Haaretz that he was on the brink of bankruptcy. He sounded much more upbeat Sunday. “Today was great,” he said. “People came, they said ‘We waited’.... Last time I was broken and now I’m optimistic.”

Back in Yokne’am Ilit, this time at the “new” commercial center, Yehuda Michaeli unloaded a delivery for his clothing store. He’s been in the business for 28 years. “It’s what I know,” he said. “I’m the sole wage earner, I don’t have anything else to do.”

In the neighboring store, Dalia Amar said she felt pain and despair. For 30 years she has sold bags, towels and kitchenware. “The coronavirus finished us off.” But Amar doesn’t blame the government. “I love Bibi; this is not because of him,” she said, referring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s no one’s fault, it’s the coronavirus,” she said, adding a personal request: “Buy from us, not on the internet.”

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