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Israeli government okays NIS 6 billion to meet major chains’ demands as they stay closed

The government said Sunday night that it had decided to allocate an additional NIS 6 billion ($1.7 billion) to help hundreds of large businesses return employees to the workforce as, as the chains recommended reopening of stores. Most of them remained closed Monday, but were expected to reopen by Thursday.

The decision came after the major chains refused to reopen Sunday since they hadn’t received the same level of government support that small businesses and self-employed Israelis got.

The chains were seeking government compensation for recent closures and ongoing restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

A joint statement by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Finance Ministry and the Bank of Israel said the additional funds — not included in the current NIS 80 billion stimulus package — would be brought before the Knesset for approval in the coming days.

It said the new loan fund, backed by state guarantees, would start operating immediately after Independence Day, Wednesday.

The exact allocation has not yet been determined and will be published in the coming days, the statement added.

The major employers had applied intense pressure on politicians to compensate them as well as small businesses, and experts have estimated that the new budget would mean millions or tens of millions of shekels per firm, the Ynet news site reported.

“We are happy the government has decided to help us weather the crisis and expect the decision to be implemented in practice,” said the protest action group of the Association of Fashion and Commerce Chains, recommending that companies open from Monday, in accordance with their level of preparedness.

Earlier Sunday, a source in the Finance Ministry had slammed the chains for refusing to resume operations, telling the Calcalist website that it was an “attempt to blackmail the state and hold the workers hostage.”

The chains had demanded NIS 10,000 ($2,850) for each employee returning from unpaid leave and compensation equal to 10 percent of their business cycle from March and April last year.

On Monday morning, the CEO of the Big chain of outdoor shopping centers demanded that his tenants open up their shops starting Thursday at all of its 22 shopping centers across the country.

“As we’ve said all during this crisis, without strong tenants there are no healthy shopping centers. We’ve stood by you patiently. Now the time has come to fully return to normal,” CEO Hay Galis wrote in a letter, according to Hebrew-language media.

According to current regulations in place, indoor malls must remain closed, but outdoor shopping centers may reopen.

The Israel Competition Authority, which oversees fair trading and anti-trust laws, said Sunday that it was probing possible breaches of competition laws by the hundreds of large businesses that coordinated their decision to remain closed on Sunday.

“To the extent that the results of the checks show that the actions taken may have infringed competition in a manner that violates the provisions of the law, the Authority will not hesitate to take enforcement action,” it said in a statement.

Some 200 chains, including leading stores in clothing, optics, home decor, camping and sports gear as well as cafes and restaurants, chose not to open their doors even as many pandemic restrictions were lifted at midnight Saturday.

According to a government decision Friday, all stores that are not in shopping malls or open-air markets were allowed to operate from Sunday if they adhere to guidelines regarding cleanliness, protective gear and social distancing.

Meanwhile, there were clashes at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda fruit and vegetable market, where vendors protested the continued closure of the landmark open air market. One person was arrested in scuffles with police.

Hairdressers and beauty salons were permitted to resume operations from midnight Saturday, if hygiene regulations related to the virus are adhered to. In addition, restaurants and food shops are now allowed to sell products for takeaway, not just home deliveries, if a physical barrier is placed between the cashier and the customers.

However, a restriction barring the general public from traveling more than 100 meters from their homes (unless for work, shopping or other essential purposes) or more than 500 meters for exercising or prayers will remain in effect until after Independence Day.

Additionally, the various fines for violating the guidelines have been doubled.

On Friday, the government approved an NIS 8 billion ($2.27 billion) plan to increase support for self-employed Israelis and small business owners who have been hit hard by the coronavirus, following accusations that Israel was not helping businesses forced to shut down.

Workplaces in the industry, production and services sectors are allowed to have 30 percent of their employees come to work, or 10 workers at the same time at the same workplace — whichever is higher.

Header: Women getting their nails done at a beauty salon in Jerusalem on April 26, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Source: TOI Staff