What happened: Late last night the cabinet approved new social distancing restrictions that will bring Israel to a halt over the weekends.
- Beginning at 5pm today, restaurants will only be available for takeout and delivery, and gyms can only be used by professional athletes. Malls, markets, hairdressers, beauty parlours, libraries, zoos, museums, exhibition spaces, pools and tourist sites will close on weekends. Beaches will remain open this weekend only, before closing with the rest of public spaces on weekends.
- Gatherings of over 10 people indoors, and 20 outdoors, will not be permitted at any time, but work groups and nuclear families will be exempt. It is unclear whether the restrictions on gatherings will also apply to religious services, but ultra-Orthodox news sites said attendance at synagogues will be limited to 10 people and outdoor prayer gatherings will be capped at 20 worshippers.
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers that the steps he was recommending were “not scientific … there are always exceptions. However, this is our direction – to prevent such gatherings”.
- He added: “The alternative to the steps that we take today – is much harsher steps tomorrow, which we are trying to avoid. It could be that we will have no choice and then we will take them, but at the moment we are trying to make quick and joint decisions. It is very important that we unite around these decisions.”
- The cabinet meeting lasted several hours due to infighting on whether to close summer camps and educational institutions. Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz will decide over the weekend whether to close down the education system, which could cost the country NIS 300 million (approx. £70m) every day, according to the Finance Ministry.
Context: This week has seen new records for thee number of confirmed daily coronavirus cases in Israel.
- The Health Ministry said on Thursday that 1,862 people were infected with the virus in the last 24 hours – the highest number of new diagnoses since the pandemic began. Five patients died in hospitals yesterday in Israel, brining the total number of coronavirus-related deaths to 384. The number of patients in serious condition has dropped by three to 202, while 58 remain on ventilators.
- The cabinet has come under criticism from across the political spectrum for its decision-making process. Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett wrote on Facebook: “Prime minister of Israel, have you gone mad? Deciding to impose a broad lockdown is out of touch, illogical and destructive. This insane decision led to the cancelation of hundreds of weekend hotel reservations this weekend. This is terrible damage.”
- Gideon Saar (Likud) questioned the logic behind the restrictions, arguing that they “will definitely make the blow to the economy worse and are unlikely to achieve the desired purpose,” whilst Ofer Cassif (Joint List) said the “decision to impose a lockdown on weekends is politically motivated and dangerous, and its goal is to prevent the brave and important protest against the tyrant from Balfour Street”.
- Israel Association of Public Health Physicians Chairman Prof. Hagai Levine said: “There is no epidemiological logic to imposing a lockdown on weekends or denying access to outdoor areas. In order to preserve the public’s health and confidence, decisions must be made transparently, in a planned way, based on epidemiological logic and data, and not based on political considerations.”
- Netanyahu has also come under heavy criticism for the new financial stimulus package he announced on Wednesday. The $6bn grant to be distributed to every household in the country regardless of income has been described as a populistic and unnecessary move.
Looking ahead: The goal of the new restrictions is to reduce the number of new daily patients to 400. National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat said the situation would be assessed again at the end of the summer.
- New legislation is required to grant the government the authority to declare full lockdowns on weekends.
- It remains unclear how the new stimulus package will encourage public spending whilst the market is still under social distancing restrictions.