Israel ‘Pull Emergency Brake’ on Further Easing Restrictions as Cases Rise

Benjamin Netanyahu - 35
(Photo: Menahem Kahana/Pool via REUTERS)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday announced that the government was applying the brakes on further easing coronavirus restrictions, amid a sustained increase in the number of cases in the country.

Netanyahu said that during a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, composed of relevant ministers tasked with combating the outbreak, experts “showed us that there has been a very steep increase in morbidity. It could be that we are already seeing the doubling of the rate of infection within ten days. I very much hope not.”

“What we decided to do, first of all, is to hit the ’emergency brake.’ We stopped all moves to ease restrictions that we were going to apply in the coming days. We will check this again next week.”

He added that “the main thing that all the experts emphasized is that we must keep the three rules: Wearing masks, keeping two meters’ distance and hygiene – washing hands. I ask you, for our economy, for our health and for the lives of us all – please follow the rules.”

The decision means the resumption of passenger rail travel has officially been delayed for a third time. The question of restarting train services will be reassessed next week, Channel 12 news reported.

Activities in theaters, music performances and other cultural venues had been set to resume on June 14. It has now been delayed to June 21 at the earliest.

The cabinet did, however, approve raising the number of participants allowed at various events to 250.

At the meeting, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein noted that 800 new cases were identified in the past week, as opposed to about 300 infections confirmed in the preceding two weeks combined.

“We can’t stay complacent in the face of this number,” he told the forum.

“Police must resume strict enforcement [of social distancing rules] in shopping malls, buses, trains, restaurants, event halls and everywhere, in order to return discipline to the public and enable us to keep opening up the economy,” Edelstein said.

The Health Ministry on Monday morning reported 45 more diagnosed cases from the evening before, taking the total since the start of the pandemic to 17,915. The death toll remained steady at 298.

The number of daily cases has hovered around 100 for eight days, even as testing rates climbed considerably.

Of the active cases, 27 people were in serious condition, including 23 of them on ventilators, according to official figures. Another 39 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild symptoms.

After a sustained drop in the daily infection rate, Israel has seen a jump in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, with health officials attributing much of the rise to schools.

According to Health Ministry figures released Sunday, 43 cases have been confirmed in Tel Aviv over the past three days, compared with 37 in Jerusalem, which had previously seen the largest outbreak.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a stern warming Sunday against what he called a “serious slackening in observing the rules” aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, saying that Israel was still at grave risk from the pandemic and imploring the public to do more to contain the country’s resurgent outbreak.

“As I keep saying, the virus is here. It is neither my imagination nor anyone else’s,” he warned.

“Anyone who says that there was no danger in the first place, or that there is no danger now, is misleading the public and encouraging behavior that endangers public health and the lives of many,” the prime minister said.

“Part of the clear increase that we have seen in the last eight days in the rate of infection in Israel is due, as was expected, to the easing of restrictions we have made in order to open our economy. But some also stems significantly from a serious slackening in observing the rules on masks, social distancing, and hygiene.”

On Saturday, Channel 12 news reported that the outgoing director-general of the Health Ministry had urged senior staff to operate under the assumption that the country is in the midst of a fresh coronavirus outbreak, while acknowledging that the magnitude of this “second wave” was unknown. Moshe Bar Siman-Tov denied making the comments and told the network a second wave is not inevitable “if we operate properly.”

“But we are in the midst of a rise in cases. It is definitive, real and tangible, and it will take time for us to understand its full extent,” he added.

The Education Ministry said Sunday that 130 schools and kindergartens have been shuttered in the past 10 days, up by 24 since Saturday.

Additionally, 17,605 students and staff members were in quarantine on Sunday, 1,282 more than Saturday.

The government said this week it would leave schools open, but use targeted closures anywhere a coronavirus case is found to help stem the recent spike in infections. Though classes resumed last month after a two-month closure, students and teachers are required to wear face masks and are supposed to keep to strict hygiene practices.

Education Ministry officials met on Sunday to discuss the renewed outbreak. According to Channel 12, no major decisions were reached at the meeting, though schools were to be given free rein to decide how to best separate students and uphold social distancing rules.

The jump in new cases came after the daily infection rate steadily dropped through much of May, with Israel easing restrictions on movement, economic activity and gatherings that were put in place to contain the virus.

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