Israelis Are Flouting the Coronavirus Rules and Still Enjoying a Flat Curve

Based on all the statistics, our situation is not bad. The coronavirus curve in Israel hasn’t totally bottomed out, but it has definitely flattened. On the eve of Independence Day, the number of Israelis who had recovered from the virus exceeded, for the first time, the number of those who are ill. Since the beginning of the week the daily rate of new infections has averaged less than 200. The rise in the number of daily tests has stopped, but that actually happened this week because of a drop in demand: Apparently fewer people are feeling sick and asking to be tested.

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Over the past few weeks there has been an argument in the cabinet over what statistics would permit a speedy return to partial routine. The lenient scenario held that restrictions could continue to be eased as long as the number of new cases daily remained below 300, and the number of seriously ill and ventilated patients also remained below that.

Since we seem to have a comfortable margin from that figure, more restrictions are likely to be lifted. The Education Ministry is planning to reopen preschools and grades 1 to 3 next week by dividing the classes into shifts to avoid crowding. At the same time, the superfluous restriction limiting sports activities to 500 meters from home will be lifted.

The big question is how less public caution about the social distancing guidelines (keeping one’s distance, leaving home only when necessary, wearing masks) could affect the rate of new infections. Anyone who went outside this past week noticed that the streets are increasingly crowded, and anyone active on social media saw photos of gatherings that violated the Health Ministry’s instructions. The results of these trends will be felt in the coming weeks.

On the other hand, there is hope that the restrictions still in place, like the ban on mass events and the partial staffing of workplaces, can still prevent a national outbreak of the type experienced here in the second half of March.

If the virus spreads less rapidly when it’s hot and humid, as some scientists theorize, that could also help prevent another outbreak. In the background, though, there are still localized risks: hot spots in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh and the increasing rate of infection in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the inability to get quick test results and trace the chains of infection make it hard to quickly identify and treat new hot spots.

The bottom line is that Israel is still cruising relatively safely on the last drops of fuel provided by correct decisions made during the first weeks of the crisis. But even though two months have passed, the management of the crisis remains impulsive and confused. The government’s objectives are not clear and are not being explained quickly enough to the public.