With 839 dead, virus cabinet meeting postponed amid bickering over High Holidays

The Health Ministry announced on Monday morning that the national death toll from the coronavirus pandemic reached 839, as the meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet was postponed amid disagreements over regulations concerning the upcoming High Holidays.

The ministry said two people had died of COVID-19 since midnight. Over 500 Israelis have died of COVID-19 since July 1, compared with 320 from March to June.

Of the 21,914 active patients, there were 411 in serious condition including 116 on ventilators, and 200 in moderate condition.

The total number of coronavirus infections since the start of the pandemic stands at 103,274, a rise of 962 since midnight.

Testing is typically decreased over the weekend, meaning daily infection rates tend to be lower at the start of the week as those results are processed.

Magen David Adom worker tests a man outside the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem on August 18, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Medical personnel administered 12,522 virus tests on Sunday, the ministry reported, with a 7.7 percent positive rate, an increase over recent days.

Meanwhile, at a meeting of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee, which oversees the country’s handling of the virus outbreak, chair Yifat Shasha-Biton told a senior Health Ministry official that the ministry was “driving the system crazy” with its requirements ahead of the opening of the school year.

Shasha-Biton made the comments to Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Itamar Grotto after he suggested that the current plan to reopen the year under a system of full classes, capsules or remote learning — depending on the age of the students — be reassessed only after the High Holidays.

The spat came as the planned meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet was delayed amid disagreements on regulations for prayers for the upcoming High Holidays.

According to Channel 12 news, ultra-Orthodox ministers are pushing back against recommendations by coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu regarding the number of set capsules of people that will be allowed to pray in the same synagogue, depending on that locality’s rating according to a red, yellow, or green color-coded system based on the number of infections.

On Thursday, ministers refused for a third time to approve Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan, reportedly due to opposition from ultra-Orthodox ministers, who oppose restrictions that could shutter synagogues in high infection areas.

The matter was reportedly supposed to be debated at Monday’s now-canceled meeting.

Jewish men pray in Meron, northern Israel on August 23, 2020, ahead of the Jewish New Year (David Cohen/Flash90)

In a plan unveiled in recent days, Gamzu outlined restrictions to be imposed during the High Holiday period, which begins next month.

The plan would only place restrictions on cities with high morbidity rates, if the rate of infection is not slowed by September 10. The restrictions will take effect starting from Rosh Hashanah until October 11, after the Sukkot holiday.

The disagreement over restrictions in Israel is on top of clashes over policy toward an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage by ultra-Orthodox Jews to Ukraine.

Gamzu, the government’s top official in charge of the coronavirus response, fears the pilgrimage could cause a spike in infections if thousands of Hasidic Jews board planes to Ukraine and gather for events around the Uman gravesite of Rabbi Nachman, an 18th-century luminary and founder of the Bratslav Hasidic movement.

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Sunday called on Gamzu to resign from his post due to his actions to thwart the pilgrimage.

Then Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, shakes hands with Ronni Gamzu during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Gamzu told associates that he has no intention of leaving the position, and that he has the full backing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Channel 12 reported.

In response to a letter Gamzu sent to Ukraine’s president pleading with him to bar the pilgrimage, Litzman said, “Gamzu needs to resign.”

“I haven’t seen a situation where an official sent a letter to a president,” Litzman said. “That needs to come from a health minister or prime minister.”

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews have come under fire for not adhering to coronavirus regulations, mainly at the start of the pandemic in Israel, but also earlier this month at a wedding at an open air venue in Jerusalem that was reportedly attended by thousands.

The community has been hit especially hard, likely due to their typically large families, prayer practices, and other communal gatherings.

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