Health officials to reconsider mall pilot after severe overcrowding

Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school, which was closed after some 120 teachers and students tested positive for COVID-19 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Jerusalem’s Gymnasia Rehavia high school, which was closed after some 120 teachers and students tested positive for COVID-19 (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)


The Health Ministry is considering shutting down the mall pilot program almost before it even got started, after thousands of Israelis flocked to the centers on Friday and crowded together in lines, hallways and stores.

At the same time, students in grades 10 to 12 will return to their classrooms on Sunday after nearly nine months at home.

Coronavirus commissioner Nachman Ash, Health Ministry director-general Chezy Levy and other health professionals held a discussion Saturday night on the situation at a handful of malls that opened Friday. The officials decided to increase enforcement and to test some changes to the outline.

Those close to Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that the minister takes the situation seriously and that “if the situation does not change drastically and immediately, they will have to consider immediate closure. The mall owners are expected to act responsibly and adhere to all the Health Ministry’s guidelines. They shot themselves in the foot on Friday.”

Photos swarmed across social media Friday morning showing images of Israelis packed inside malls looking for Black Friday specials. Lines swung around buildings and into parking lots, with people far less than two meters away from one another.

The country launched a pilot program on Friday at 15 malls that were chosen by the Finance and Economy ministries that is meant to run through December 6.

Those malls include the Kiryon Mall in Kiryat Bialik, the Petah Tikva Grand Mall, Grand Canyon Shopping Mall in Beersheba, Azrieli Haifa, and Ayalon Mall, Center One and Malcha Mall in Jerusalem, among others. If a mall was not on the list, it could not open; no malls in red areas were opened.

The program had several basic tenets: One person per every seven square meters was allowed to shop (and as many per store up to 10 customers); the number of visitors to the mall would be measured digitally and monitored; mall monitors would patrol and enforce the rules of mask wearing and social distancing; there would be lots of instructional signage; and everything would be exceptionally clean.

But by Friday afternoon, the Health Ministry had already released a statement indicating that “the layout must be reexamined in light of the images circulated today of significant congestion in malls.”

On Saturday, during a visit to Arab cities, Ash also raised concerns, describing such images as “extremely grave.”

“I hope we do not have to close the pilot because of these photos,” Ash said. “I call on the people to act responsibly. I call on the heads of the malls to be responsible, too. Run the pilot the right way so there is no overcrowding.”

The images hit social media around the same time as the Health Ministry was reporting a spike in infection. For the last three days, Israel has seen more than 1,000 new cases per day.

On Saturday, the Health Ministry reported 1,027 new cases the day before – 2.2% of those screened tested positive – and another 315 between midnight and press time on Saturday. There were 276 people in serious condition. The death toll stood at 2,845.

There has been a 12% increase in infection among the general community, according to statistics reported by Eran Segal, a computational biology professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science, on his Twitter page. That spike was 32% among the Arab population, but down among the haredim by 22%. There was also a 10% decrease in the number of serious patients, and he analyzed that the country would not see an increase in the coming week.

Former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash told The Jerusalem Post that the malls should close. “It’s too late, anyway. Schools alone will lead to lockdown. The question is not if, it’s how long until.”

Levy expressed similar sentiments: “We are opening things up too quickly – and too many things together,” he said during a Friday night interview with Kan News. He said the easing up of restrictions was being made out of recognition of the importance of education and the severe economic hardship of the citizens.

As noted, among those reliefs is sending children back to school.

Students in grades 10 through12 have been at home almost consistently for nine months and straight through since the High Holiday lockdown. On Sunday, they are finally returning to their classrooms with what will hopefully be enough time to prepare for their matriculation exams.
However, as teachers and principals have pointed out, it will not be easy.

The outline required by the Health Ministry means students, whose schedules are centered on core curriculum classes and electives, can only be a part of two capsules. At the same time, the teachers – many who teach up to 10 elective classes – can only teach four capsules. As such, most students will only be in school two or three times per week and for the rest of the time they will continue with online learning.

“I think there are two different levels of ready: are we ready logistically and are we ready emotionally,” Dina Weiner, a teacher and olim coordinator for the Reut School in Jerusalem told the Post on Saturday night.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post