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Government urges public not to storm supermarkets, as shelves emptied

The Health Ministry on Saturday sought to calm an anxious public, assuring Israelis that there would be no shortage of food and that supermarkets would remain open throughout the country, amid reports that people were raiding stores to stock up on goods.

“Citizens of Israel, supermarkets will remain open, period,” ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said in an afternoon statement. “There is no point in storming them. The system is preparing [for broader restrictions] but under any possible scenario supermarkets will remain open.

“I ask the public to act responsibly and to adhere to the instructions of the relevant authorities.”

The comments came amid numerous reports of an onslaught of panicked customers at stores open on Shabbat, with pictures of long lines and emptied shelves making the rounds on social media and news sites.

Avshalom Vilan, secretary-general of the Israel Farmers Union, urged calm as well.

“Israel’s agriculture industry is able to supply all fresh products: vegetables, fruit, meat, eggs and dairy,” he tweeted. “There is no shortage of rice, sugar and meat imports. Even if in the coming days people are asked to stay at home, all food stores will be open and our produce will continue to flow as usual.”

A spokeswoman for the prime minister, Shir Cohen, also stressed there was no need to stock up.

“Israel’s food factories are continuing and will continue to operate as usual. The supermarket chains have large stores. Food imports to Israel continue. All these lead to extensive stocks, so there is no need or justification for stocking up on food.”

Netanyahu had made similar statements himself on Friday, saying: “You have no reason to storm supermarkets. There will be enough food in general and for the [upcoming Passover] holiday.”

The rush to hoard food and basic necessities came amid reports the government could drastically tighten measures to fight the spread of coronavirus in the country in the coming days — and possibly as early as Saturday night — though deliberations on the matter were still ongoing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indeed expected to announce new, more stringent measures Saturday evening.

These could include transitioning staff at workplaces deemed non-essential to work from home, further limiting public gatherings, curbing public transport and shutting down malls and other places, as well as possibly shuttering kindergartens and private daycares in addition to the schools and universities which have already been ordered closed for at least the next month.

A senior minister told the Ynet news site that, currently, “the inclination is a slowdown of the economy, not a shutdown.” Officials were said to be working to determine how many Israeli workers would be classified as non-essential.

The Health Ministry is pushing for a complete shutdown of such non-essential workplaces, according to the report, and Netanyahu will have to decide on the next course of action.

Directors-general from the relevant ministries were said to have held marathon talks overnight Friday-Saturday at the Finance Ministry’s headquarters in Jerusalem to run through scenarios where there is a complete shutdown with only essential services running. The discussions were centered around working out certain details such as how IDF soldiers were to get to their bases and whether to shutter boarding schools, which were not included in the directive Thursday ordering the shutdown of schools from the first grade through high school, as well as universities.