Israel to Shut Down Nation for Three Weeks to Contain COVID Spread

Facing a spike of 4,000 daily new coronavirus infections, the government of Israel voted Sunday to implement a national lockdown for three weeks to contain the spread—a decision that was opposed by a number of cabinet members.

The lockdown will begin on Friday and include the Jewish New Year. Israel is reported to be the first country to impose such a measure on a national level.

"There are detailed regulations that the government will approve in the next two days," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a briefing after the vote, as reported by The Jerusalem Post. "I know these steps will take a heavy toll, that this is not the holiday we are used to, and that we will certainly not be able to celebrate with the whole family." Netanyahu has been previously criticized for his response to the pandemic, including reopening the economy too quickly.

The measures during the lockdown include: not having more than 10 people congregating indoors, while groups of 20 are permitted outside; schools and shopping centers will be closed; citizens cannot go beyond 500 meters from home except for traveling to work; and non-governmental businesses and offices can remain open but not take in patrons.

The decision drew criticism from some members of Netanyahu's cabinet who argued that a nationwide lockdown would hurt Israel's economy. Among those officials were Science and Technology Minister Izhar Shay, Economy Minister Amir Peretz, and Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir, who said that "a full closure of the entire country during the holidays is too extreme a step and has economic implications that entire industries will not recover from."

"Hundreds of thousands of employees and the self-employed are in existential anxiety. The economic coronavirus pandemic is no less severe than the health pandemic," said Peretz.

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, begins on September 27.

Before the government vote, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman announced his resignation to protest against the lockdown measures. He also threatened to pull the ultra-Orthodox Jewish party that he leads out of the governing coalition, BBC News reported.

"My heart is with the thousands of Jews who come to synagogue once a year and this year won't come at all due to the lockdown," wrote Litzman in his resignation letter. "I warned against a lockdown during the holidays in every possible forum and emphasized that if there is a need for a full lockdown, it should not wait for a rise of infection to get to this pace."

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein remarked that while he should be happy about the decision, he's not. "For three months, I tried to do everything to allow us to live life alongside the coronavirus and keep the number [of sick patients] at levels the health system could live with," Edelstein said, as quoted by The Jerusalem Post. The Health Ministry also experienced criticism from those within the government over its handling of the pandemic.

But another cabinet official, Interior Minister Areyh Deri, backed the measures. As reported by the Times of Israel, Deri said he supports a general lockdown as opposed to localized closures in the cities.

According to Johns Hopkins University's tracker, as of Sunday afternoon, Israel has approximately 154,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, including more than 1,108 deaths. A recent report from the country's coronavirus information center said that the growing rate of infections is bringing hospitals to maximum capacity.

Newsweek reached out to Israel's government press office for additional comment.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a briefing on coronavirus developments in Israel at his office in Jerusalem, on September 13, 2020. - Israel's government announced it would impose a three-week nationwide lockdown in an effort to stem one of the world's highest novel coronavirus infection rates after a surge in cases. YOAV DUDKEVITCH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty