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Frustrated by the Lockdown, Israelis Exploit its Loopholes

A month in a hotel without cleaning service, food or use of the swimming pool. A takeout order delivered to a street corner. Taking a banned trip abroad by ordering tickets from an overseas website. These are just a few of the creative ways Israelis are getting around the lockdown restrictions that began September 18 and became more draconian a week later.

The government faces more resistance than in last spring’s lockdown partly due to the widespread feeling that the rules aren’t being imposed equally, especially on the ultra-Orthodox, whose rate of contagion is much higher than for the general population. In addition, the second lockdown is exacting a bigger economic toll, encouraging many businesses to find ways around it.

Readers should bear in mind that these tricks violate the rules and regulations established for the coronavirus pandemic. Anyone trying them must take into account that in addition to the risk they pose to public health, they could saddle you with heavy fines if caught.

‘Moving’ to a hotel

What’s banned: Use of swimming pools and fitness centers and staying at hotels.

The loophole: Hotels and other hospitality facilities can be used for short- and long-term accommodation, so long as public facilities aren’t being used.

What’s done: People rent rooms at hotels and bed-and-breakfasts for the long-term.

“I wanted to escape the lockdown, so I looked for an option through Airbnb. I found lots of possibilities and in the end I signed with a B&B in [the Galilee moshav of] Klil for five days,” said Sharon, a Tel Aviv resident. “The owners told us to say that we’re moving homes – because that’s allowed under the regulations – and even promised us they would return our money if we were caught at a police checkpoint on the way there.”

For Sharon, her husband and two children, the cost was just 800 shekels ($234). “Everyone’s dying to get out. A lot of people asked us how we did it,” she said.

From the hotel industry’s perspective, such arrangements are a lifeline. After a busy summer, because travel restrictions kept Israelis at home, the second lockdown forced them to close for the High Holy Days season. Some hotels and B&Bs have used the “moving homes” loophole to bring in at least some guests.

“You really can’t blame the owners, who are looking for ways to make a little money right now however they can,” said Shefi Mor, CEO of Merom Golan Tourism.

The Brown, Atlas and Crowne Plaza chains, for instance, are all offering rooms for periods of a month or more at attractive prices. A month at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the Tel Aviv beachfront runs to 5,800 shekels for a standard room to 15,000 shekels for a Presidential Suite. The price doesn’t include use of any of the hotel facilities, such as the pool, dining room or spa, all of which are closed by law for the duration of the lockdown. Cleaning services are available for an extra 200 shekel charge.

The Club Hotel chain has been operating as normal because guests have bought units as time-sharing apartments, reserved for them for fixed dates every year.

B&Bs (tzimmers) have been offering deals similar to the hotels’:

“For long-term rental, tzimmer owners charge 1,500 to 3,000 shekels a month, without the use of facilities like swimming pools. Also, some are also renting short term under the radar with a written contract,” said Mor. ”It’s easy to do it because a lot of tzimmers are located on moshavs and it’s difficult to supervise them.”

‘Wait on the corner’

What’s banned: Opening businesses that serve the public, including retail and restaurants.

The loophole: Takeaway orders are banned, but businesses, including restaurants, are allowed to deliver goods and meals.

What’s done: Businesses arrange to deliver via rendezvous at a nearby location.

“SMK: Sherutei mishlochim b’karov [nearby delivery services]. Call to order and the delivery person will bring it to the olive tree.”

That sign, affixed to the window of a Tel Aviv cafe, represents one solution to the lockdown ban on takeaway orders that restaurants and cafés have had to contend with. For the second time this year, business has come to a standstill and many may not survive.

However, they can deliver orders sent by email or online. Under the rules that means taking the food at least seven meters, which has inspired quite a few to measure out the distance from their entrances and set up a pick-up spot for the delivery person to meet the customer.

“The rules don’t require that the delivery be brought to the customer’s place of residence, so that means you can order a delivery to be taken to you in the street,” explained Shai Berman, CEO of the Israel Restaurants Association.

Not everyone wants to pay a 10 or 20 shekel delivery charge and a tip. A lot of people live close to the restaurant they’re ordering from anyhow and would rather just pick up their orders, he added.

He said the practice began because of the ban on takeaway, which has hurt the restaurant business badly. The first lockdown saw 2,000 of Israel’s 14,000 restaurants close and the second, he estimates, will cause another 3,000 to go out of business.

“Business owners are indignant. They feel that the government hasn’t compensated them [for their lockdown losses] and are looking for ways to stay in business. People who are on the brink are willing to take their chances,” Berman said.

Blind date

What’s banned: All flights out of Israel.

The loophole: You can fly if you bought your ticket before September 25, have a letter from the Transportation Ministry exempting you, or have a diplomatic passport or visa.

What’s done: Ordering tickets through websites of overseas airlines.

Many Israelis held off buying tickets before September 25 due to the uncertainty about the new rules and now found themselves angry and frustrated. That has caused many of them to look for legal or marginally legal loopholes to get out of the country.

While airlines have been banned from selling tickets since the no-fly rule went into effect (Israir unsuccessfully appealed the rule), foreign airlines aren’t obligated to adhere to it. Israelis can continue buying tickets through the carriers themselves or through websites such as Skyscanner.

The challenge for would-be fliers is entering the airport itself, but those who have tried it report that it isn’t an insurmountable obstacle. Travelers are asked when they made the reservation and to present documents that confirm it. However, the examiners at Ben-Gurion International Airport have no real-time link to the computer systems of foreign airlines and have no way of verifying the claim.

“You can forge the purchase date in various ways and some people regard it as a joke,” said Ronen Carasso, CEO of the travel company Issta Holdings, whose phone centers are closed for the lockdown. “It’s a risk that travelers take upon themselves and a violation of the law.”

Header: Cherry tomatoes growing in the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council. (Courtesy)

Original: Hadar Kane – HAARETZ