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Israel: Stores open their doors in defiance of weekend shutdown regulations

A number of retailers violated weekend lockdown restrictions on Saturday, after a dispute between ministers over the timing of an expected easing of the regulations meant cash registers were still mandated to stay shut.

The Big Shopping Center group announced it would allow stores to open, the Kan public broadcaster reported. Additionally, the Ofer Mall operator told the outlet that their shopping centers would open as usual due to the presence of supermarkets, pharmacies and restaurants, which are permitted to operate on the weekend, and that they would not stop any other retailers from choosing to open as well.

Nassim Ibrahim, shift manager at Toys “R” Us at the Ofer Bilu mall in the center of the country, which is not an enclosed indoor space, told Channel 12 news that his branch is maintaining hygiene and social distancing regulations but he still expects the police to show up.

“We opened today despite the uncertainty and despite the concerns. The truth is that we also expect police to arrive at any moment, but we were nevertheless instructed to open,” Ibrahim said.

“We are still maintaining hygiene, and keeping a distance of two meters [six feet] and the other instructions, and hopefully it will be fine. How much can you be at home? We need to make a living, we need to work and the customers want to be able to come and buy things for their children, especially in an open compound,” he said.

Businesses operating in violation of virus restrictions can face a NIS 5,000 fine (approximately $1,450).

Footage broadcast by the outlet appeared to show police officers issuing warnings for the stores to close, however the majority remained open.

“I have to do my job. The decision comes from above that the place should be closed,” an officer is seen telling a store manager.

Under current virus regulations, all non-essential stores must close between 5 p.m. Friday and 5 a.m. Sunday as part of a partial measure meant to curb the quickly spreading coronavirus while keeping the economy running for most of the week.

Much of Israel’s commercial activity is scaled back over the weekends due to the country’s laws on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, but some malls and places of entertainment remain open.

Customer Zaki Kfir told Channel 12 news that he deliberately came to shop in a show of solidarity.

“We came to support the local companies. The closure was completely political and done for the sake of Shabbat observance by the ultra-Orthodox parties. I think the police also understand that this was not the place [to enforce closures]. We follow the guidelines, are careful, and it seems okay,” Kfir said.

Ministers are said to be on board with canceling the current restrictions, though a dispute on the timing meant a weekend lockdown that was set to go into effect Friday afternoon will instead likely remain in place for one more week.

On Friday, newly appointed coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu urged retailers to be patient, saying most of their demands were “correct and justified.”

“We are acting from a desire to restore public faith. I call on everyone to be patient,” Gamzu said in a statement Friday.

“In recent days I have received many appeals regarding changes to the economic restrictions,” he said. “Most of these requests are correct and justified. However, at the same time, the real desire to make corrections and the necessary changes can not be an excuse for making immediate and hasty decisions.”

Gamzu met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening to discuss the possibility of lifting the government’s weekend restrictions on businesses after Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein agreed that partial lockdowns only caused economic damage without providing the health benefits of a full lockdown.

However, no decision was taken regarding this weekend due to disagreements between cabinet ministers on the matter, according to multiples reports.

The immediate lifting of the restriction was opposed by Science Minister Izhar Shay, who had suggested it, and by ultra-Orthodox ministers, who would like it to be accompanied with loosened rules on synagogues, according to Channel 12 news.

The package is set to be voted on only on Monday, the report said.

While most stores have been reopened since May, retailers say that their margins are too tight to allow them to be closed on weekends.

A letter sent to Netanyahu and other top officials signed by the heads of several of the country’s largest fashion chains on Wednesday urged the government to not delay the weekend rollback.

“It would be good if you made a decision to immediately cancel this unnecessary and illogical closure which has wreaked huge damage and destroyed us economically,” the letter reads, according to the Globes financial daily. “Pushing off the decision until early next week for technical reasons of religion or anything else, including restrictions from the Ninth of Av [the Jewish fast day that ended Thursday evening], will restore the sense of lack of trust and lack of logic in managing the crisis.”

This weekend coincides with the start of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, when many stores see increased turnout.

“Weekends make up 40 percent of my monthly revenues,” Avital Suwet, head of the Bogart clothing chain, told Channel 13 news. “That means if this continues, we will have to reshuffle the deck and unfortunately have another round of layoffs.”

Header: View of the parking lot and shops in Bilu Center, in Kiryat Ekron, July 30, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Source: TOI