Covid-19 and Israel’s R budget

We were never explicitly told this was the strategy, but back in March and April, Israel’s government seemed to be trying to fully suppress the new coronavirus: reduce daily cases to zero. The country locked down, visitors were forced to quarantine, foreign citizens were banned, with a view to a full reopening. At the first sign of a nascent outbreak, localized lockdowns could help get the country back to Covid Zero.

It never happened. Israel reopened too quickly, didn’t react to new outbreaks and allowed the coronavirus to become endemic. Full suppression is no longer a viable strategy. From hereon in, mitigation will be the only way forwards.

So let’s talk a bit about how to keep the virus under control.

There are two numbers to think about here: the reproduction number and the incidence.

  • The incidence is the easiest one to understand: basically, it’s how many infectious people there are right now.
  • The reproduction number, sometimes called R, is how many new people the average person infects. If R is over 1 every person with Covid-19 gives it to more than one other person, meaning the disease spreads. If it’s below 1, then each sick person infects less than one other person on average, and over time case numbers will go down.

I imagine it like a budget. The R number is the bottom line, and we’re either spending more than we have (R over 1) or spending less (R is less than 1). Or completely balanced at 1, I suppose, maintaining a fixed incidence of cases.

Incidence, though, is like debt. When incidence is low, we can afford to carry a bit more R. When it’s high, we need to start paying down.

OK, it’s not a perfect metaphor but you get the idea. I hope.

Every activity where people meet, interact or share space adds some R. Some activities spread the coronavirus a LOT. Some spread it less, or barely at all.

The R costs of different activities vary from place to place. I saw an article recently that suggested some languages might spread the virus more than others, for example, depending on which consonant sounds spread more droplets. Class size, school design, school hours and learning styles probably affect how much R is added by schools. R from weddings depends on how big or small weddings are, how long, how much dancing, what sort of dining…

For Israel to keep the coronavirus under control in the long term, it needs to build a budget of activities that keep R at or below 1.

Let’s imagine an example table, with fictional numbers, of how much R each activity costs:

ActivityR cost
BASELINE R COST IN A FULL LOCKDOWN0.4
Kindergartens0.05
Schools for under 10s0.1
Schools for over 10s0.25
Weddings and other large parties0.25
Indoor prayer (synagogues and mosques)0.15
Residential yeshivot0.3
Indoor dining at restaurants0.2
Outdoor dining at restaurants0.05
Shops0.1
Gyms0.1
People eating at each others’ houses0.1

To be clear, I’ve made up the R values for these. They aren’t real. And there are aspects here that are enormous oversimplifications. But they give some kind of idea of the decisions and tradeoffs the Government needs to make.

Some of these activities themselves can be mitigated to lower their R cost. Israel has ordered some of these mitigations (masks, temperature checks, ventilation) since April. But mitigations only reduce the R cost of most activities, not eliminate it entirely. Masks work, but an infected masked student in a classroom can still infect other masked people.

The R cost, by the way, is a function both of how risky an activity is and how many people do it. Meat processing plants are SUPER-risky but the vast majority of people don’t work at meat processing plants, so their total R cost is low.

Try to build a budget from the list above and you’ll see some of the challenges.

We can’t do everything, so we have to choose

Opening everything adds a massive amount of R that sends coronavirus infections out of control. Now that suppression has failed, there is no current path to a full reopening. None.

Once you accept this, everything becomes a question of priorities. Opening an activity doesn’t mean it’s “safe”, it just means that the country has chosen to spend valuable R on it.

When Israel rapidly reopened after the April lockdown, the overwhelming message from the public was “If you’ve reopened that, why not this?”, with today’s ‘this’ becoming tomorrow’s ‘that’ which surrendered control to populism and inter-communal jealousy.

The message from the Israeli government was that everything open was safe, as long as the public wore masks and kept physical distance.

The truth, though was that they didn’t reopen shops because they’re completely safe; they reopened shops because the R cost was worth it for shop owners, workers and the public. They didn’t reopen schools because schools are safe; they reopened them because decided they were worth the price.

This summer, as coronavirus cases rose, the government severely limited weddings and restaurants, just enough to get R at about 1, which kept the high incidence stable. But they allowed residential Yeshivot to operate (with mitigations), which added so much R to the budget that, with the high incidence, the whole country was locked down a month after they returned from summer vacation. The government decided that residential yeshivot were worth the price in this case, the political price of the lockdown.

We can go into deficit provided we pay it down

Like a real budget, we can run a deficit, with R over 1. This increases disease incidence.

When incidence is already very low, having a high R isn’t always a problem. If we only had ten Covid-19 cases, then even if R was 2, it would take a while for things to get bad. If there are 100,000 cases, then with an R of 1.05 they’d infect 105,000 others.

When incidence is low, running an R of 1.1 or 1.2 could be a good option. I imagine doing this for festivals, as long as we pay it down by closing more things and targeting a lower R afterwards to reduce incidence again.

This is the strategy I’d have taken this summer. By instituting tougher measures to lower incidence in August and keeping yeshivot and schools closed in September, perhaps we could have got through the festivals period without the need for a lockdown.

We don’t know the real R costs of activities

Another problem here is that a lot of this is guesswork. We don’t really know the R costs of different activities yet.

Israel hasn’t had a mature contact tracing system throughout the pandemic, relying instead on the Shin Bet security service’s phone tracking capabilities. This means the Israeli authorities don’t have good information about where people are catching the virus. Looking at other countries is useful, but as I mentioned earlier, the same activity can add different amounts of R depending on how it’s done in each place.

This was an issue when the government tried to close gyms in the summer. The Health Ministry pointed to statistics from abroad showing gyms were a contagion point, and used logic: people breathe deeply in gyms, they don’t wear masks, and gyms are usually air-conditioned. Those are all things that cause the virus to spread. But the Knesset demanded proof that Israeli gyms were dangerous, and ordered them reopened. When the Health Ministry brought case studies about the dangers of infection on air-conditioned buses worldwide, the Transport Ministry wanted proof that Israeli buses were risky too.

We’re also still learning more about how people catch the coronavirus.

  • In March, the focus was on catching the disease from objects, so hand washing was a priority. We now think this isn’t as major a risk.
  • In May, masking and keeping two metres from people to prevent respiratory droplets became more important. This is still believed to be true.
  • Now, aerosol spread is seen as an additional threat, making large events in enclosed spaces extra-risky and forcing us to think about ventilation too.

These new understandings change how risky particular activities are. If people are catching the virus from only from 2-metre unmasked contact, then home hosting is almost as dangerous a restaurant. If aerosols are a concern, then restaurants are riskier and weddings even worse.

Without a good understanding of the R cost of each activity, it’s impossible to build a good R budget, leading to over-budgeting (like lockdowns) or under-budgeting, reopening too much leading to, yup, lockdowns.

The R cost of activities goes down as more people get sick

In actual epidemiology (rather than my gross oversimplification), R0 represents the of spread of the disease in a naive population who’ve never had it before. Rn is the spread of a disease in the real population where some people have already had it and have developed a level of immunity.

Nobody really knows yet how much immunity people get after they recover from Covid-19. Maybe it’s full immunity or maybe it’s partial; maybe it lasts three months and maybe twenty years. Maybe it’s antibody-mediated or relies mostly on T-cells. We just don’t know yet.

Israel’s Health Ministry just published a study which shows that as of September, around 5.5% of Israelis carry antibodies against the coronavirus. In some cities like Jerusalem, more than 9.5% of people had the antibodies, but in places with limited outbreaks, like Tel Aviv, only 2.2% had them.

Some studies suggest that many people who had the virus don’t develop antibodies at all but instead gain at least some immunity via T-cell memory. So that 5.5% seropositivity could translate to, say, 11% immunity. Or maybe not. Once again, we don’t know.

But shaving even 5% off of the R cost of activities means we can afford more of them. And this won’t be evenly distributed, either. Some activities will face bigger drops in their R cost. If the government allows yeshivot to reopen on Sunday, as they are currently planning to, we might well end up in a third lockdown by January because they cost so much in R. But eventually, perhaps by spring, so many yeshiva-aged boys will have caught the virus that yeshivot will start to be ‘cheap’.

A vaccine isn’t a cure, but it’s a big R discount

I remember we used to talk about ‘after coronavirus’ and ‘when things are back to normal’. Now we know better. The coronavirus isn’t going away. Normal has changed and will keep changing. And a vaccine isn’t going to stop that either.

What a vaccine will do, at least in the short to medium term, is provide a discount to the R costs of different activities as more people have partial or full immunity to the virus.

Once a good percentage of the population has has a vaccine, that discount could be significant enough to allow a lot more reopenings. a 50% discount off of R in my made-up table above, for example, would be enough to allow all of those things to reopen. But remember that this would be with the current mitigations, like masking, distancing and number limits like 250 at weddings.

How does it end? Vaccines, treatments and social change

So how do we get ‘back to normal’? Well, like I said, maybe we don’t, Maybe people will wear masks more often in cramped public places, and more events will be outside, and people will wash their hands more.

A combination of vaccines and herd infection immunity will lower R a lot, too, making more events possible within the R budget.

And there are lots of other things that could have an impact on R as a whole; better air filters, UV disinfection inside air conditioners, prophylactic medications, rapid testing to identify cases, better tracing and isolation, etc etc.

But in the meantime, there is probably no way to open everything we want to open. We can’t afford the R cost. And that means making choices about our priorities as a society.

Is work the most important thing, to keep people employed and the economy running? Are schools the priority, to keep kids learning and socialising? Do religious services take priority over cultural events? Do hairdressers outrank competitive sports?

Societies rarely have to face up to these choices in such stark terms. But the pandemic’s R budget forces us to both acknowledge and make these choices, or we’ll be stuck in an endless cycle of lockdowns.

Covid, Capsules and Haredi Privilege

I want to talk a bit about privilege.

Privilege is a buzzword on the progressive Left right now, where it means something like “the advantages you have in life”, I suppose. Or maybe “The disadvantages in life that you don’t have”. But that’s not what the word really means.

As I learnt from Terry Pratchett, privilege literally means “Private Law” (privi-lege). Privileges were once special laws that benefited a small group of people.

Israel’s growing Haredi community has long seen itself as a people apart with its own privileges recognised in law.

Most significantly, Haredim are exempt from Israel’s mandatory military draft. The Supreme Court ruled this exemption unlawful in the 1990s, and multiple Israeli Governments have fallen as Haredi parties collapse coalition after coalition to ensure that the legal situation is never rectified. More than 20 years later, Haredim are still, in effect, exempt from the draft.

This privilege, so zealously defended by the Haredi political parties and the politicians that seek their favour, sends a message to both the Haredim and the rest of Israeli society: “You don’t have to give what everyone else is expected to give. You are exempt. You are more important.”

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, Haredim have won other privileges. When education first closed down during the spring lockdown, Haredi institutions were exempt. When Ukraine banned foreign visitors, the Prime Minister appointed a committee of senior ministers with a mandate to try and get more New Year pilgrims permission to attend Rebbe Nahman’s grave in Uman.

But the newest Haredi privilege, and the most significant for Israel’s ability to withstand the pandemic, is the “Capsules deal”.

In early August, Israel was finally seeing some success in containing the rise in Covid-19 cases after a sharp increase in July. Cases continued to rise in Arab communities after mass Eid al-Adha gatherings at the end of July, but among the rest of the country, infections were actually falling. In retrospect, limits on gyms and restaurants that stopped short of full closures, and stricter rules on weddings, seemed to be doing the trick.

Hospital admissions and serious cases, July to August 2020

Then, on 21 August, the residential Yeshivot were allowed to reopen according to a new arrangement, the “capsules deal”.

I wrote about the Capsules Deal here. Essentially, students were divided into groups of 50. Each group, each capsule, was considered to be a ‘nuclear family’ and exempted from masking, social distancing and physical distancing. Each capsule was supposed to interact with nobody else, securely sealed away, and keep to a separate section of the study hall.

In reality, the capsule deal was mostly smoke and mirrors. Inside the study hall, keeping a little apart doesn’t stop superspreader-type infection events.

Outside, the capsules weren’t enforced and students mixed both between capsules and with their families, went to shops, attended weddings and generally acted freely. More freely, in fact, than anyone else, because the privilege of the capsule deal, with its conditional exemptions from masks and distancing, seems to give them permission to do whatever they wanted. Capsules became a convenient legal fiction rather than a reality.

Within 14 days of the Yeshivot returning, infections jumped and hospitalisations too.

Hospitalisations and serious cases 15 August to 30 September

Non-Haredi schools restarted, in a limited fashion, on 1 September, but that’s not enough time to be responsible for the rise in seriously ill people. The much-discussed protests had been happening for months. No, this was the yeshivot.

The Government responded by locking down the whole country as infections spiralled out of control. Workplaces and shops closed. Home hosting was banned. Schools, of course, were shut. But the Yeshivot carried on as before. No masks, no distancing, no closures. Meanwhile, infections among yeshiva-aged boys spiked and began to spread to other demographics.

On Monday evening, after Yom Kippur, with the rest of the country tightly locked down, Yeshiva students were allowed to travel home for the Sukkot vacation. But first, they partied.

The scene above is from the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva in Rishon LeZion. The police broke up another event in the headquarters of the Vishnitz Hassidim in Bnei Brak.

As the police dispersed the party, the Vishnitz Rebbe protested, insisting that the event was allowed because of the Capsule Deal. Because once you have privilege, it takes you outside the rules. Laws are for other people.

When it comes to synagogues, another ‘capsule deal’ was cooked up to keep indoor prayer happening despite the heightened risks of crowding, shouting, singing, air conditioning and lack of ventilation. But plastic partitions and masks have their limits, especially for the many hours of High Holy Day prayers. Jerusalem hospitals are already filling up with cases traced back to Rosh Hashana infections.

And, of course, the capsules for those pilgrim who made it to Uman were equally successful, as seen in this video.

Israel enters the Sukkot festival with tens of thousands of Yeshiva students back at home, many carrying the virus to seed to their families.

Unlike schools, Yeshivot have still not been closed and, as it stands, will be allowed to restart as normal in a week or two when their break is over.

Perhaps we would have got here anyway. Perhaps reopening schools alone, even with the limits on class sizes and classroom days for older kids, would have been a step too far and increased the spread of the coronavirus to the same uncontrollable levels we have now. I don’t know.

But I do know, now, that the privilege granted to Yeshivot that effectively exempted them from all coronavirus rules was big enough to force the entire country into a full lockdown within a month. And I know that that privilege hasn’t been revoked.

Until Israelis of all sectors live under the same law, without special privileges for politically powerful communities, we’re going to have to get used to lockdowns, watching the videos of Yeshiva parties from our houses because we aren’t allowed outside.

Debunking Israel Coronavirus myths

Whenever someone writes about Covid-19 in Israel, they’ll be deluged with claims that the numbers are all fake. The tests are wrong, so people aren’t really sick. Oh, and the hospitals are lying so people aren’t really admitted or ventilated. And the death recording is wrong so people aren’t really dying.

There’s an irony here. When cases were up but hospitalisations were low, people looked for explanations; the same was true when many coronavirus patients were in hospital but deaths were low.

In retrospect, these explanations were probably wrong, and the real reason was just time lag. About two weeks after case numbers surged, hospital numbers shot up too. About a week later, deaths also started increasing.

But all those ad-hoc explanations about over-sensitive testing and over-protective hospitals still live on as zombie facts, cited by those who want to claim that the pandemic is fake. Even Yifat Shasha-Biton, the chair of the Knesset’s coronavirus committee, has had a role in spreading some of these fake facts as a way of hinting that Israel’s Health officials are lying.

It’s not just “more testing”

Israel’s ability to scale up testing is a genuine success; a lot of countries have failed to manage scaling up testing to far and so fast. Israel is doing more than 55,000 tests a day on a good day. 3.5% of Israel’s whole population was tested just last week.

Despite this massive increase in testing, though, about one test in every ten comes back positive. That’s really bad. In August, somewhere between 6-7.5% of tests came back positive. In early September, it was about 8.5%.

Today’s 7-day positivity is 9.74%.

Of course, if Israel only tested 1000 people a day, then it would never have more than 1000 cases! But it’s also not correct to attribute the increase in daily cases solely to testing, either. Case numbers are rising and positivity is rising,

The rise can’t be solely explained by “the test sensitivity” or “false positives” or “too many PCR replication cycles“, either. If false positives were causing Israel’s high caseload, we’d expect to see no increase in the number of people getting actually sick and needing medical attention. In fact, though, hospitalisations are significantly up.

A lot of Covid-19 are in hospital

After a relatively stable August, hospital numbers have significantly increased in September, going from ~800 admitted coronavirus patients and ~380 serious cases to 1350ish patients of which 670 are serious. These numbers are rising fast; some predict serious cases to break 1000 in just a week or two.

Several hospitals have already stopped accepting new coronavirus patients. Others are scrambling to open more wards and ICUs. The Defence Ministry is exploring building field hospitals and the Health Ministry is looking at ways of increasing medical staff fast, including using medical interns and retirees.

This is probably the most worrying aspect at the moment. Israel never had a lot of spare ICU beds, which is what prompted the initial, early lockdown in the spring. But after things reopened, there was no serious effort to scale up the healthcare system to handle a second wave, just as there was no attempt to build a proper epidemiological tracking system.

The new coronavirus restrictions only came into effect a few days ago, and won’t realistically have any impact on hospital numbers until early October at the earliest. Until then, hospital numbers will probably keep rising based on people who got infected two weeks ago.

Mass indoor synagogue attendance for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, even following all the Health Ministry’s rules, will probably be a further driver of significant infection; so will the widespread disregard of the home hospitality ban.

Unfortunately, I expect these numbers to be much worse by the middle of October.

Daily deaths are increasing

In early July, around five Israelis a day died of Covid-19. This rose quickly to around 12 a day in August, and stayed at this level until early September when it started to rise again to almost 20 a day, or around 2 deaths per million residents per day.

Each death was a real person, a real tragedy, a mourning family.

In comparison with the worst of the coronavirus in the spring, Israel’s death toll seems low, and it is. But compared with other countries right now, it comes off rather worse. Globally, Israel currently has the 18th-highest deaths per capita, and rising.

Total Excess Deaths are up

“Excess Deaths” is a measure of how many more people died, in total, than you’d expect based on past trends.

In the first wave in March-May, Israel actually had a small drop in deaths during its lockdown compared to previous years, and in June and July, Covid sceptics claimed that there was no evidence of excess deaths, suggesting that the Health Ministry’s official death toll was perhaps misleading.

Now, though, we can see the real reason for the apparent lack of excess deaths was probably just due to a lag in collecting the data.

data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, graph original

As of now (22 September), the last month we have complete data for is July. In July there was an increase in excess deaths in Israel compared to previous years by about 120 or more. While this is obviously lower than the 234 Covid-19 deaths recorded by the Health Ministry, it does show that something is happening.

Data for the first 20 days of August suggests that August will show over 300 excess deaths; the Health Ministry recorded 384 Covid-19 deaths in August.

Looking at this data, I’d conclude a few things:

  • Despite what you might have heard, Israel is seeing excess deaths.
  • Unlike in many other countries like the USA or UK, the excess deaths are not significantly higher than the Health Ministry figures, so there probably isn’t a big pool of unreported Covid-19 deaths.
  • It’s often claimed that lockdowns and restrictions kill more people than the coronavirus. There is no evidence to support this claim.

FAQ on Israel’s New Year ‘Lockdown’

UPDATE: The Cabinet has changed the 500m distance limit to 1km. The Govt is considering stricter rules on workplaces to be discussed on Monday. This FAQ has been updated to reflect the current rules.

This morning, the emergency regulations on coronavirus restrictions for the New Year period were published. These regulations are the actual legally-binding rules, unlike the various votes, plans and proposals that have been discussed until now. They also clarify a few issues that were undecided.

In the last week I’ve had dozens of people call, email or message me to ask what is allowed under the New Year restrictions. I answered what I could, even though a lot was still up in the air. There is so much confusion that I thought it was worth writing up a quick FAQ that covered the questions I’ve heard the most often.

Q: Can I spend time at my family in another city and come home afterwards?

A: No

It was always clear that this wasn’t going to be allowed, because travelling more than 1000 metres from your home is not allowed except for a permitted purpose. “Going home after Rosh Hashana” or “Going to family for Yom Kippur” isn’t a permitted purpose.

Q: Can I eat meals at my my family or friends’ houses as long as they live within 1km of my home?

A: No

This rule was only made the day before Rosh Hashana and wreaked havoc on people’s festive plans. When the New Year restrictions were announced, there was no ban on home hosting. Homes, like any other indoor place, were allowed to have up to ten people. Because of this, many people planned to have festive Rosh Hashana meals with friends or family who live nearby.

However, the published Regulations included a ban on having anyone in your home that doesn’t live there. This is a significantly tighter rule than “any ten people” and matches the home hosting rules at the height of the April lockdown.

I actually agree with the rule. It was pretty clear that allowing festive meals (inside, small spaces, no masking, many hours) between families would spread the virus. But there was no reason to wait until 36 hours before Rosh Hashana eve to announce it. People are panicking, rushing to buy food and depressed that their plans were cancelled. If this rule had been announced with more notice, people would have accepted it much more easily.

The wording only applies to being inside a residence, which makes me think that meals of up to 20 in a garden which is accessible without going through the house might be ok. But your guests will be forbidden from using the toilet.

Q: Can I eat meals in a park or open space with people I don’t live with?

A: Yes

There is nothing in the current Regulations that prevents having a picnic in the park with friends as long as you all live within 1km of the place you’re meeting and the group is not larger than 20 people, with appropriate hygiene and distance measures.

In my reading of the Regulations, you would even be allowed to eat inside with a group of up to 10, as long as the place you’re eating is not a place of residence. An empty office, perhaps. But I’m not totally sure about that.

Q: Can I host guests in my sukka?

A: No idea!

Is a sukka considered a “residential home” where guests are forbidden?

Or is it an indoor space that is not a home where up to 10 can join as long as appropriate distance is kept?

Or is a sukka maybe an outdoor area, allowing 20 people?

I have no idea, and frankly nor does anyone else.

Q: Can I walk more than 1km to go to a prayer service on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur?

A: No

This was only confirmed today and was actually a bit of a surprise. In Jerusalem, where I live, there is certainly going to be a prayer service for the High Holy Days within 1000 metres. However, people often are part of a community that meets a little further from home with no easy equivalent nearby.

People aren’t even permitted to walk more than 1km to hear the shofar.

One exception to this rule is for anyone who’s leading a service, reading from the Torah, blowing the shofar etc. These people (and their families) can travel as far as necessary to do their jobs, provided they get a permit from the Religious Affairs Ministry.

UPDATE: A reader has commented that he was given a permit to lead a Masorti service, so my initial concern that non-Orthodox prayer might stuggle to get permits was incorrect.

Q: Can I travel to another city for work?

A: Yes (for now)

As during the April lockdown, there is no ban on travel between cities. If you are leaving the house for a permitted purpose like work, it doesn’t matter if you travel 1500 metres or 100 miles.

However, intercity public transport will be limited during the day and closed at night and weekends.

The Government will discuss stricter rules for workplaces on Monday.

Q. Can I walk around within 1 km of my place of work?

A: No

Permission to travel 1km applies only to a person’s own place of residence, not to any other place.

Q: Can I attend a shiva?

A: If it’s within 1km of your house, and not held in someone’s home

My best reading of the Regulations as they apply to a shiva (the traditional Jewish week of mourning where visitors comfort the mourners) is as follows:

  1. A shiva is not a permitted purpose in the latest regulations. This means that people are not allowed to travel more than 1km to attend.
  2. It is forbidden to spend time in someone else’s home, but this only applies to places of residence, not other indoor spaces.
  3. The general rule of 10 indoors or 20 outdoors applies to everywhere else.

So I would say a shiva can be held in somewhere other than a home for up to 10 people, or outside for up to 20. Comforters shouldn’t travel more than 1km to attend.

Q: Can I buy the Four Species or Sukkah parts??

A: Yes, but only from next Wednesday

Buying the Four Species or parts to build a sukkah will be temporarily defined as “essential” from Wednesday 23rd September until Thursday 1 October. People will be allowed to buy them and the traditional street vendors will be allowed to sell them.

Kapparot for Yom Kippur will also be allowed to be performed on the street, but without any exceptions to the 1km rule for ‘customers’.

Q: Can I walk more than 1km to walk my dog

A: No, but maybe yes

As in the April lockdown, there is no special exception for walking a dog. It is not considered a permitted purpose to travel more than 1km. But I think it would arguably be a form of exercise for the dog-walker and be covered by the rule that allows a lone person or members of the same household to walk for exercise as far as they want as long as they go straight home after.

But if you get a fine, don’t blame me.

Q: How many people are allowed in a car?

A: Three (or more!)

A driver is allowed to carry two passengers who she doesn’t live with. If a car has more than two rows of seats, one extra passenger per row is allowed as long as they actually sit one to a row.

Q: Do I live in a red zone?

A: Almost certainly

Because of the rise in infections, the vast majority of Israel is now a red zone in the basically-abandoned Gamzu Plan.

The list of red zones is included as an appendix to the Regulations, but it’s missing all cities from the letters כ-ק, which I think means that half the country gets out of stricter rules because of a copying error.

It does list the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that are now red, which, the best I can tell, is most of them. Certainly it includes Armon Hanatziv, Arnona, Baka, the German Colony, Rasko, Katamon, Katamonim, Talbiye, Talpiot, Rechavya… this isn’t an exhaustive list, either. I noticed it didn’t include Ein Karem or Beit HaKerem, for example, but check for yourself.

Outside of Jerusalem it includes Ashdod, Ashkelon, Beer Sheva, Beit Shemesh, Bnei Brak, Gadera, Zichron Yaakov, Hadera, Holon, Yavne, Yeruham… Kiryat Shemona, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot and Sderot.

Like I said, this is missing כ-ק, but I do note that Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat are in the clear.

In theory, all these places need to keep stricter rules about High Holy Day prayers, but I don’t know if any of them know this because it hasn’t been communicated.

Back to ‘lockdown’. Sort of.

What’s a lockdown?

Israel never had the sort of lockdown that Wuhan or Lombardy saw, where people were banned from leaving the house for all but essential reasons. Apart from the week of Passover, offices remained open, albeit with occupancy limits for larger companies.

There were no restrictions on how many times a week people were allowed to buy food, or how far they were allowed to travel to do so. If I wanted to, I could have driven to Haifa to buy hummus.

There was a ban on going 100 metres from your house, but that limit only applied to going out for some air; as long as you were leaving for a permitted purpose like shopping or work (and eventually sport, collecting takeaway food, praying or going to the gym…), the limit didn’t apply.

What made Israel’s lockdown into a lockdown at all was that the list of permitted purposes was short. It was forbidden to have anyone inside your house that didn’t live with you; parks were closed; meetings outside were limited too.

Tonight, Israel’s cabinet finally decided to impose a new ‘lockdown’ for three weeks from Friday afternoon, covering the High Holy Days through to the Sukkot festival, in response to the sharp increase in coronavirus cases.

Now, the full details of this new ‘lockdown’ haven’t been confirmed. No actual legally-binding regulations have been published. But this is what has, at least, been announced:

  • Schools will be closed (not including residential Yeshivas, of course!)
  • Shops, restaurants, hotels, gyms and entertainment places will be closed
  • Food shops, pharmacies, takeout food and other essential shops will be open
  • Businesses that don’t receive members of the public are all open as normal with no new restrictions
  • People can’t travel more than 500 metres from their homes unless it is for a permitted purpose like going to work, shopping, prayer(?) etc
  • Indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people, and outdoor gatherings to 20 people (the same as the Red Zone rules in the Gamzu Plan).

This set of restrictions is significantly less strict than April’s lockdown. In April, companies of more than 10 people could only bring 20-30% of their workforce into the office. Now, there’s no such limit. Most people will be expected to work as normal, though with schools closed that could pose a challenge.

Another major difference is the rules on gatherings. In April, Israelis were restricted to their own households; it was illegal to host anyone in your home. This time, it’s reported that meals of up to ten people will be allowed, with no limit on the number of households.

Attending a meal of 10 people indoors seems to be allowed, then. But it’s not clear if attending such a meal is a permitted purpose for which it’s allowed to travel more than 500 metres. I assume not? Still, it creates an awkward inconsistency if there are permitted activities that aren’t permitted purposes. In April, there was consistency: if you were allowed to do it, you were allowed to travel for it. Now, perhaps there isn’t. Hopefully this will be clarified when the regulations are published.

The question of prayer has been one of the most contentious, especially over the Jewish High Holy Days. The proposal I saw for prayer seemed ludicrously lenient, allowing mass indoor prayer of hundreds in one room for larger synagogues. And I assume people will be allowed to walk more than 500 metres to attend prayers.

Given that High Holy Day prayers can take most of the day (especially the Yom Kippur prayers), with singing and loud responses, I can’t possibly see how this could be safe.

On balance, I am not sure that the current proposals will do very much to stop the spread of the virus. Yeshivot remain open. Large synagogues in red zones are reportedly getting relaxed rules. Multiple households are still still allowed to meet indoors and eat meals. Workplaces are still allowed to hold meetings of 50 people with no physical distancing.

Perhaps I’ll feel differently once I see the actual published regulations. Until then, we’re all still guessing. But my gut says this is both too little and far too late.