Easing restrictions, Israel begins opening up from second lockdown

Israel began to emerge Sunday from its month-long coronavirus lockdown, the second this year.

As of Sunday, Israelis can once again travel more than one kilometer from home, and visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors). Preschools and daycares can reopen; restaurants are allowed to serve takeout food; businesses that don’t receive customers can open; people can visit beaches and national parks; and the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound will reopen for worship under certain restrictions.

Ahead of the partial lifting of lockdown restrictions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the imposition of the nationwide closure a month ago to curb sky-high coronavirus infection rates and said Israel would emerge gradually this time.

“We will exit [the lockdown] carefully this time, in line with the plan set out by the experts at the Health Ministry,” Netanyahu told reporters during a televised briefing on Saturday evening.

“If everyone follows the rules, I am sure that it will work,” the prime minister added.

Officials have warned that if infections go up, restrictions could be reimposed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at his office in Jerusalem on October 17, 2020. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The easing of some of the rules, in force since September 18, had been approved on Thursday by Netanyahu’s government, contingent on new cases being no higher than 2,000 per day.

On Friday, 1,469 people were diagnosed out of a total of 34,640 tests performed over the course of the day, a positive rate of 4.2 percent. This number is down from around 8,000-9,000 per day at the end of September.

“The decision to impose a national lockdown was correct. I am happy that I insisted on it. The lockdown worked,” Netanyahu said. The premier and his government had faced harsh criticism for mishandling the health crisis in Israel, including by lifting restrictions too early after the first lockdown in March and April.

The lifting of restrictions this time around is scheduled to take place in several phases lasting through February 2021.

But Sunday’s reopening also came amid fresh concerns a lack of public adherence to health regulations could reverse the progress made.

Netanyahu on Saturday called on ultra-Orthodox Jews to follow the virus rules, after a prominent leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordered a Haredi school system for boys older than six to reopen on Sunday despite this continuing to be prohibited.

Netanyahu called on the ultra-Orthodox community to refrain from this move and adhere to the measures put in place.

“The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life,” he said.

Illustrative: A mother and her two young sons walking to preschool together Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

The preschools and daycares for children aged 0-6 will also reopen in virus hotspots, also known as red zones, currently mainly ultra-Orthodox areas where infections remain high. But most lockdown restrictions will remain in place in these areas until at least midnight Wednesday, according to authorities. These areas include Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Beitar Ilit, Modiin Ilit, Elad, the northern town of Rechasim, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Kiryat Mattersdorf.

Netanyahu said Israeli authorities would enforce the restrictions as much as possible. “We will employ legal means in accordance with our abilities,” said the prime minister, adding that there was a limited number of officers and inspectors and they “cannot be deployed on every street.”

Officials have expressed fears that pressure to swiftly reopen schools and the full economy will lead to a repeat of Israel’s chaotic emergence from its first lockdown in May.

The top official charged with leading Israel’s response to the coronavirus warned Saturday evening against becoming complacent.

Speaking in a televised address, Ronni Gamzu thanked Israelis for adhering to the rules, but warned that the country was far from being out of the woods.

“Restrain yourselves,” he said, urging Israelis to avoid gatherings such as weddings and parties as “they’ll quickly bring us backwards.”

“Don’t shrug it off. This could lead to a renewed rise in infections, especially in red cities,” he said.

Gamzu, during his address, rejected suggestions that the decision to allow preschools and daycares to reopen in virus hotspots was political.

“The opening of preschools and daycares is not free from danger, yet this was not a political decision, but a decision made on the basis of advice from those who know the ground well,” he said.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu visits the Jerusalem Municipality on October 13, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He confirmed that infection rates in the red cities had dipped, but said they were still seeing a basic reproduction rate (or R naught) above 0.8 per carrier, the threshold at which cities may have the “red” label removed.

Gamzu said Israel still had to slip to below 1,000 cases a day while keeping below the 0.8 reproduction rate figure to move to the next stage of the Health Ministry’s gradual, several-month exit plan based on epidemiological benchmarks.

“This will pave the way to the next stage, including — among other things — opening schools from grades one through four. It’s important that we get schools back on track,” he said.

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli urged the government to keep highly infected areas under lockdown, warning: “The only way to manage the coronavirus routine without a third lockdown depends on making decisions on the basis of epidemiological rates in the exit stages laid out by the experts.”

He said the government must not seek shortcuts or have a “double standard” and ease the rules on hotspots too quickly.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Bnei Brak on October 14, 2020, during a nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The decisions to lift some restrictions come a week after the Sukkot and Simhat Torah holidays, prompting concerns an outbreak in ultra-Orthodox areas, where gatherings were common and numerous violations were recorded, may not yet be reflected in the official data.

According to multiple media reports, the government has also agreed on a plan to reopen ultra-Orthodox yeshivas next week according to the previously implemented “capsule” program.

Restrictions on flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport were lifted on Thursday night, as per a government decision Wednesday.

Former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash, a frequent media commentator during the pandemic, on Friday criticized the decision to begin emerging from the lockdown next week.

“They shouldn’t have set the threshold to exit the lockdown at 2,000 cases a day. They should have put it far lower at dozens or between 100 and 200 because it’s much easier to control,” Barbash told 103FM Radio.

He said reopening the education system under the current conditions was “very dangerous.” It would have been better “to wait another week” before starting to reopen, Barbash said.

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