How Do You Vote Under Coronavirus Quarantine? Just Look at Israel’s Election

Special ‘pop-up’ polling stations have been set up for these determined voters, where masks and gloves and special voting-slip envelopes are the order of the day

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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A special polling place for voters in quarantine in Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020.
A special polling place for voters in quarantine in Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Yuval and Aviya Oz knew that voting in the third election in less than 11 months would be odd – but they couldn’t have imagined quite how surreal the experience would be.

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Bibi went gunning for his only real rivalCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 66

Like over 5,000 other Israelis confined to their homes in self-quarantine as part of a national effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, their trip to the polls on Monday was the first and only time they were venturing out of their Tel Aviv apartment.

Instead of strolling into a local public school to cast their ballot alongside their neighbors, as they did in April and September last year, they had to drive to one of 16 special locations across the country. These special “pop-up” polling stations are staffed by paramedics wearing protective suits and masks. The voters, too, are required to wear masks and gloves as they place a double-sealed envelope holding their voting slip into a plastic bag before slipping it into the ballot box.

Despite the hassle, “there was no way we considered staying home and not voting,” says Yuval, a circus artist who owns the Bascula Urban Circus Club. Oz is arguably the most famous Israeli in quarantine, having turned the experience into a creative opportunity, filming and editing a two-minute daily diary and posting it on Facebook. The series, titled “Couple in Isolation,” has become a viral hit and turned himself and his wife, a genetic counselor, into internet celebrities.

People displaying cold symptoms or fevers have been told not to venture out and vote, but nearly all the people who have isolated themselves at home – like the Ozes – feel fine and are healthy.

A voter casts her ballot as supervisors look on behind plastic in a special polling place for voters in quarantine in Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020.
A voter casts her ballot as supervisors look on behind plastic in a special polling place for voters in quarantine in Tel Aviv, March 2, 2020.Credit: David Bachar

Still, under Israel’s extra-strict rules, after the couple returned from a yoga retreat in Thailand nearly two weeks ago following the outbreak of the virus there, they were required to stay home along with others returning from the Far East; they knew of those restrictions even as they boarded their flight home.

The situation was more confusing for travelers returning from Italy early last week, before the Health Ministry announced last Thursday that they too needed to isolate themselves at home.

Yadin and Saroj Elam returned to their Ramat Aviv home last week from a trip to Milan to celebrate their 25th anniversary, exactly when the infectious disease hit northern Italy, taking the romance out of their trip.

Yadin and Saroj Elam waiting for the opera in Milan. The couple bought the tickets at 12:30 P.M. for the 2:30 P.M. concert. At 2 P.M., it was canceled.
Yadin and Saroj Elam waiting for the opera in Milan. The couple bought the tickets at 12:30 P.M. for the 2:30 P.M. concert. At 2 P.M., it was canceled.Credit:

“On the third day in Milan, all of a sudden, everything shut down. It was scary,” Saroj recounts. “We had tickets for a soccer game – it was called off. Then we went to buy tickets for the opera. Two hours after we bought them, we were standing in line with tourists and Italians waiting for the opera house doors to open – they put small notices on the doors. It had been shut down, along with everything else there: schools, public transportation. The whole thing was scary and stressful.”

Upon returning, the Elams went back to their normal routines for two days, when word came from the ministry following the news that tourists returning from Italy had developed possible symptoms: they needed to quarantine themselves.

At home, they aren’t completely alone – their teenage sons live with them, “but we have to separate ourselves from them,” Saroj explains. “In the living room, we clean any furniture we sit on with special medical wipes after we touch it. We don’t share a bathroom with the boys, and when I’m making food for them I have to wash my hands and use gloves like I’m in an operating room. Our house smells like a hospital,” she adds.

The Elams may not be making a web series about their experiences like the Oz family, but they are getting through the experience with a healthy dose of humor. This is, she laughs, the ultimate way to mark an anniversary: By seeing if their relationship can survive spending so much time stuck at home.

Yadin Elam at the voting station with a poll worker in Tel Aviv's Ramat Aviv
Yadin Elam at the voting station with a poll worker in Tel Aviv's Ramat Aviv Credit: Saroj Elam

“It’s like the ultimate test of seeing if we are ready to grow old together,” she says.

Going out to vote will be the closest thing to a date they will be able to muster. “It’s our big opportunity to go out!” Saroj says with mock enthusiasm. “Seriously, it’s all very strange and bizarre.”

Though there is a special voting place within walking distance of their Ramat Aviv home, the Health Ministry was encouraging quarantined voters to travel by car, if possible, in order to minimize contact with other people. Getting to the polls by public transportation is strictly off-limits.

Most quarantined Israelis say they are far busier than they anticipated when they first learned they would be stuck at home for up to two weeks.

“We got a head start on Pesach cleaning and take care of anything that needs attention around the house,” says Chevi Schrader, who was in Rome with her husband Shlomo – during his semester break from teaching at a university – on a trip they had been planning for months. “In fact, we haven’t really stopped for a minute. We’re crossing things off our list: it gives us a feeling like we are accomplishing something.”

Chevi and Shlomo Schrader in Rome
Chevi and Shlomo Schrader in RomeCredit:

The couple, who immigrated to Israel in 1986 from Baltimore, will use the family car to get to a special polling station in Modi’in, the closest location to their home in the West Bank settlement of Hashmonaim.

“Our son also uses the car, so we’ll have to wipe it down afterward,” Chevi Schrader says. Their son, a student at Ariel University, is normally at home during the current break between semesters. However, since his parents returned from Italy, “he’s had to float around and stay with his friends and his sister.”

Chevi Schrader says she and her husband are determined to vote, though she hoped there wouldn’t be a line of other voters who might be infected. If there was, she planned to keep her distance.

“Voting is very important to me,” she says. “We planned our trip to Italy in order to be back before Election Day to cast our vote, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

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