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Israel Reopens Some Malls and Open-Air Markets in Test

  • By Editor
  • 11 30
  • 2020

JOSHUA SHUMAN / The Media Line 

 

Health officials concerned as Israelis cram into malls on first day 

 

Selected Israeli malls and open-air markets welcomed customers on Sunday after reopening from a months-long closure in a pilot program to balance economic activity and public health. However, images of crowding gave health officials pause. 

 

Fifteen malls and the open-air markets were allowed to start selling goods in person on “Black Friday” for the first time since September after Israel’s coronavirus cabinet approved the move late last week. 

 

One of the 15 was Israel’s first-ever enclosed shopping center, the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan, just east of Tel Aviv. The Media Line walked around the mall on Sunday. The major brand stores had lines of 10 to 20 socially distanced people waiting outside their entrances. Up to 10 shoppers were allowed inside each store at any one time. Outside, the parking lot was filled with cars. 

 

“I am happy to be at work. For close to three months I was on unpaid furlough,” Shai (who declined to provide his last name), an employee at MyPhone store, told The Media Line. 

 

“We have a long line now waiting for service. We have had customers since we opened, but it was slower earlier,” he said. 

 

A source from a major local shopping-mall company who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line: “We have good data points from opening on Black Friday. The pilot is working, and we very much want Israel’s economy to move forward.” 

 

The person added, “Not all stores opened on Friday because store managers didn’t have enough time after the government decision to prepare their wares. However, by Sunday all of the stores in our malls were open to the public.” 

 

Local news broadcasts, as well as social media video posts, showed Israelis mobbing the malls on Friday. Despite the coronavirus cabinet deciding that the “maximum permitted capacity [per store] will be a ratio of one person per 7 square meters,” pictures and videos seemed to show that the regulation was disregarded. 

 

As a result, Health Minister Yuli (Yoel) Edelstein said in a statement, he instructed his ministry’s director-general, Prof. Hezi Levy, and the coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, late on Friday to meet the following evening to discuss the “serious crowding at malls … and in light of the rising morbidity figures.” 

 

“Health Ministry officials will present him [Edelstein] with their conclusions at the start of the week, and he will then formulate his position,” the statement said. 

 

Economics Professor Avi Ben-Bassat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem told The Media Line that the government’s decision to open only 15 shopping malls in Israel was “a complete mistake.” 

 

“The pilot is not built correctly. The government should listen to the experts, not only economic ones but also those from public health,” said Ben-Bassat, a former Finance Ministry director-general and senior director of the Bank of Israel’s Research and Foreign Currency departments. 

 

“This pilot is a priori, set up for failure. You have lots of people going to the same places. Only 15 shopping malls for the entire country. Everybody who has not been shopping in months is going to be together in enclosed spaces. It is clear that political pressure is running the show.”

 

 

“Israel needs to realize our potential, and it can’t be done by playing politics with public health,” he said. 

 

“If the government wants to test the idea, it could have opened all of the shopping malls for one or three days. From this, we could have learned how to operate. The way it is now arranged is all due to political pressure and not to keep public health at the forefront,” Ben-Bassat added. 

 

With 3.3% of those tested for COVID-19 on Saturday found to be positive, would opening the malls and urban outdoor markets create a huge spike in cases? 

 

Dr. Yoav Yehezkelli, who teaches emergency and disaster management at Tel Aviv University’s School of Public Health, does not think so. 

 

The shopping malls, he told The Media Line, “have high ceilings, rendering them almost [like] an outdoor space. If people adhere to social distancing, wear masks and take precautions, the spaces will not spread the disease.” 

 

“If work is done to reduce the density of people in the semi-outdoor spaces by enforcing the regulations, the urban open-air markets can approach zero dilution of the virus’ droplets, which occurs outdoors,” he said. 

 

Yehezkelli, who is also a physician in Maccabi Healthcare Services, Israel’s second-largest health maintenance organization, said that opening the markets and the malls is important economically and psychologically. 

 

“I take a wide view of well-being,” he said. “Public health is a matter of well-being both economically – related to a person’s livelihood – as well as a person’s health. Public health is not just dealing with the coronavirus; it also concerns … [people’s] overall mental and physical makeup.”

 

An Economy and Industry Ministry spokesperson told The Media Line, “The pilot program is scheduled to continue until December 6, as decided by the cabinet. Following the pilot’s conclusion, it will be decided whether to open all shopping malls.” 

 

Shai the mobile-phone seller said he expected another lockdown. 

 

“Soon, we’ll probably close again, but for now we are all happy working at the store.” 

 

Maya Margit contributed to this report.

 

 

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