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Nationwide lockdown eased, Bnei Brak restrictions relaxed amid cautious optimism

A four-day lockdown that kept Israelis confined to their hometowns expired at 6 a.m. Friday, as officials urged the country to not let up social distancing efforts in a bid to keep the deadly coronavirus from spreading.

In Bnei Brak, residents saw an even stricter lockdown on their town ease slightly, with residents allowed to travel outside the town for work and some other essential needs for the first time in a week.

From Tuesday evening to Friday morning, Israelis nationwide had been banned from moving between cities, amid fears that people traveling for the Passover holiday could lead to a fresh surge of virus cases just as it seemed numbers were beginning to level off. In Jerusalem, residents were confined to one of seven delineated zones dividing the city.

Nationwide, 9,968 people have been confirmed to have the virus and 86 people have died, according to Health Ministry figures released late Thursday. In recent days, officials have begun to discuss possibly rolling back some restrictions later this month if the rate of infection continued to slow.

A stricter curfew in place from Wednesday night forcing Israelis to remain within 100 meters of their homes was lifted Thursday morning.

Ynet reported that throughout the holiday Wednesday and Thursday, police had handed out hundreds of fines to people breaking restrictions on movement, according to Hebrew media reports.

In a statement announcing the coming lifting of the lockdown and the government’s decision to ease Bnei Brak’s quarantine, the Health Ministry urged Israelis to continue maintaining social distancing regulations and not to become complacent.

“The danger of the coronavirus has not passed. We all saw what happened in other countries around the world,” Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said in the statement, likely referring to countries in east Asia that have seen a resurgence of the virus after rolling back restrictions. “A gradual opening of the economy will only be possible if we all make sure to keep the rules, despite the hardships.”

The announcement said a decision regarding special measures for Jerusalem, where most infections have been in ultra-Orthodox parts of the city, would be forthcoming.

Under the rules remaining in effect Friday, Israelis may travel for work or other essential needs, such as shopping for food or medicine, but are generally barred from being more than 100 meters from their home. Gatherings of more than two people are forbidden. People are also supposed to wear face masks when out of the home, but enforcement on that measure is not set to go into effect until Sunday.

In Bnei Brak, residents will only be allowed to leave the city limits for work, medical treatments, transferring children between separated parents, funerals of immediate relatives and “other necessary matters approved ahead of time,” the Health Ministry said in a statement sent out early Friday.

The ultra-Orthodox city of 200,000, the first in Israel completely locked down, has seen higher rates of infection than anywhere else.

Despite having one fifth the population of Jerusalem, it has almost as many infections as the capital, which leads the country with 1,630 confirmed cases, according to figures released Thursday.

Health officials had reportedly pushed for the nationwide lockdown to be extended until the end of Passover on April 15, but were shot down by the Finance Ministry, which has warned of lasting damage to the nation’s economy the longer restrictions remain in place.

Officials were said to fear Israelis would not resist the temptation to venture out during the holiday, potentially leading to a new wave of infections as the country seeks to curb the virus’s spread.

But the Finance Ministry quickly issued a statement rejecting any such extension.

“Clarification: The limitations placed before the holiday on workplaces will be removed tomorrow as planned,” a ministry spokesman said in a statement. “The situation will return to the restrictions in place before Passover Eve.

“As for the reports of continuing the current closure: the head of the National Security Council has updated the Finance Ministry director general that as of now, tomorrow will see a return to the status that was in place before Passover Eve, as planned.”

In recent days, Israel has seen a slowing of the rate of new cases confirmed and patients needing ventilation even as the death toll has risen to 86. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government could begin rolling back some restrictions late next week.

The exit plan, led by the National Security Council, would see a gradual release of restrictions — so long as infection rates remain under control, according to Channel 12 news. These would include raising the number of workers approved to work outside the home (various models of work by shifts or on alternating days are being reviewed); a return of special needs children to educational institutions and later the return of preschools; a release of citizens from restrictions — according to area and age; eventually easing limitations on the distance people can venture from their homes (currently at 100 meters).

But shopping centers and entertainment and leisure venues were not expected to reopen soon, the channel reported.

Putting a dent in the optimism, health officials are projecting that Israel will fall short of testing 10,000 people a day for the virus in the immediate term because of a shortage of a key reagent.

Worldwide, the virus has claimed over 95,000 lives, and more than 1.6 million cases have been recorded, most of them in the US and Europe, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.