Israeli health, finance panel: Reopen malls, lift additional restrictions

Experts recommend immediately lifting restrictions on malls, with some suggesting the hardline policies adopted by the Ministry of Health were an overreaction.

By Lauren Marcus, World Israel News

A panel of Israelis, including economists and epidemiologists, presented an exit strategy plan for reopening shopping malls to the National Economic Council on Monday.

The next round of easing coronavirus restrictions, which will include sending some children back to kindergartens and schools, is set to begin May 3rd.

The committee recommended that all retail stores in shopping malls be allowed to reopen, while restaurants and movie theaters remain closed. Their report forecasts a potential 1.5% – 5% increase in coronavirus infections once malls are opened, and states most of those infections would not be cause for concern as they will occur within low risk groups of the population.

In a cabinet meeting on Saturday, Minister of the Economy Eli Cohen expressed interest in reopening shopping malls, albeit with clear safety procedures in place. “With malls it is easier because there are defined entrances and exits,” he said.

“We can do temperature tests, require visitors to wear gloves and masks and use an app to monitor customers to know if a sick or a quarantined person visited the area,” Cohen said.

As recoveries from the coronavirus outnumber new cases, some researchers have spoken out against the hardline policies adopted by the Ministry of Health as an overreaction.

Due to the strict guidelines, almost all workplaces in Israel were temporarily shuttered and over one million Israelis were fired or placed on unpaid leave.

Last week, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published a report, Managing COVID-19 Pandemic without Destroying the Economy. Using models from countries like Sweden and Singapore, the report says that the lockdowns were unnecessary and that Israel should immediately cease all coronavirus restrictions currently in place.

The report concludes that a limited-time quarantine of only high risk groups, while allowing the rest of the economy to function as normal, would have been the best way for the Israeli government to manage the pandemic with minimal damage to public health and the economy.

One of the authors, Professor David Gershon, has called for restrictions on the tourism industry to be entirely lifted. Hotels should be reopened and international travel to Israel encouraged, Gershon told local media. The Israeli city of Eilat, where nearly all residents work in the tourism industry, currently suffers from an 85 percent unemployment rate.

In a TV interview on Friday, Director General of the Health Ministry Moshe Bar Siman Tov defended his office’s hardline approach, saying that if the tough policies hadn’t been implemented, “today we’d have over 600,000 sick people, over 10,000 on ventilators, and many thousands whose lives would have ended.”