JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli leaders are expected to make critical decisions about easing the nation’s strict lockdown on Thursday.
Infection rates have decreased dramatically over the last four weeks, going from about 9,000 daily cases when the lockdown began in mid-September to under 3,000 this week. Health officials reported just 1,994 new cases on Wednesday and the rate of positive test results is the lowest it’s been since July. Government leaders have said the number of daily infections must stay below 2,000 for several before restrictions are lifted again.
“We will have to double-check the numbers, but my opinion is that at the beginning of next week, we will definitely be able to take the first step in easing the restrictions,” Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who is leading Israel’s battle against the virus, told Army Radio on Thursday. The first phase of the lockdown is expected to reopen kindergartens and preschools and businesses that do not receive the public will be allowed to return to normal operations.
Health officials on Wednesday agreed to reopen Ben Gurion Airport for travel on Thursday night, admitting it is a low-risk infection area.
Government leaders will likely clash during Thursday’s meeting over how quickly the restrictions should be lifted and which businesses should be allowed to open.
However, the biggest conflict will likely come over the decision to create separate lockdown plans for cities with high and low infection rates.
“Tomorrow I will convene the coronavirus cabinet and the first thing we will decide on is a separate route for the exit of the red cities,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday in a statement on his Twitter account.
Most of the areas with the country’s highest infection rates are ultra-orthodox – extremely religious, insular Jewish communities where some residents have flouted lockdown rules, continued to hold large gatherings, and accused leaders of unfairly disrupting their way of life. Gamzu reported earlier this month that the ultra-orthodox make up 40% of Israel’s total cases.
Ultra-orthodox leaders have already said they will not accept a plan that keeps their areas under lockdown. Some ultra-orthodox day schools for boys have already opened in violation of the law. Most of the ultra-orthodox religious educational institutions have vowed to open next week without government approval.
Netanyahu has been slammed for his handling of the lockdown and critics accuse him of imposing restrictions that appease his political partners.
Before the lockdown began, Gamzu had pushed for targeted lockdowns in high infection areas. After facing pressure from ultra-orthodox leaders, Netanyahu decided against this plan and instead imposed a blanket open-ended lockdown on the entire country.
Finance Minister Israel Katz has criticized the closure, lamenting that it is destroying Israeli businesses and threatening food security for some.
“I will not let millions of people sink into the despair and the disgrace of hunger because of the Health Ministry’s incorrect decisions — to close the entire economy without any distinction [between different businesses] and without any health justifications,” Katz said last week.
Meanwhile, an alliance of 400 retail chains representing more than 18,000 stores is vowing civil disobedience and plans to open on October 18.
More than 967,000 people, almost of quarter of the workforce, are jobless in Israel.
“The Health Ministry has decided not to care about the business sector. The Health Ministry does not understand what the whole world already understands,” the alliance’s statement read, according to Times of Israel.
Meanwhile, World Health Organization (WHO) officials are now warning against lockdowns as a way to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Dr. Michael Ryan, executive director of the organization's health emergencies program explained the significance of preventing another widespread lockdown. "What we want to try and avoid, and sometimes it's unavoidable - we accept that - but what we want to try and avoid are these massive lockdowns that are so punishing to communities, to society and to everything else," he said.
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