Fewer than 400 new coronavirus cases were confirmed Saturday in the country, the lowest figure in months, as Israel’s second COVID-19 wave appeared to wind down after a month of nationwide lockdown.
Health Ministry data published Sunday morning showed 395 cases were diagnosed the previous day, just three weeks after the daily figure stood at 8,000. It was the lowest number of daily cases since late June.
The lower number was partly due to reduced testing levels on weekends. However, the rate of positive test results — which generally climbs as the number of tests drops — also reached a low of 2.8 percent out of 14,149 tests. In late September, the positivity rate was around 15%.
The new cases brought Israel’s total to 302,832 since the pandemic began, including 33,727 active cases, a figure that has similarly dropped dramatically in the past several weeks.
The death toll stood at 2,190. Serious cases went down to 673, including 237 on ventilators. Another 205 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.
Israel began Sunday to emerge from its month-long coronavirus lockdown, the second this year.
As of Sunday, Israelis can once again travel more than one kilometer from home and visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors). Preschools and daycares can reopen; restaurants are allowed to serve takeout; businesses that don’t receive customers can open; people can visit beaches and national parks; and the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound will reopen for worship under certain restrictions.
Ahead of the partial lifting of lockdown restrictions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the imposition of the nationwide closure a month ago to curb sky-high coronavirus infection rates and said Israel would emerge gradually this time.
“We will exit [the lockdown] carefully this time, in line with the plan set out by the experts at the health ministry,” Netanyahu told reporters during a televised briefing on Saturday evening.
“If everyone follows the rules, I am sure that it will work,” the prime minister added.
Officials have warned that if infections go back up, restrictions could be reimposed.
The easing of some of the rules, in force since September 18 as part of a second lockdown in six months against the pandemic, had been approved on Thursday by Netanyahu’s government, contingent on new cases being no higher than an average of 2,000 per day for a week.
The lifting of restrictions this time around is scheduled to take place in several phases, through to February 2021.
But Sunday’s reopening also came amid fresh concerns a lack of public adherence to health regulations could reverse the progress made.
Netanyahu on Saturday called on ultra-Orthodox Jews to follow the virus rules, after a prominent leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordered a Haredi school system for boys older than six to reopen on Sunday despite this continuing to be prohibited.
Netanyahu called on the ultra-Orthodox community to “not do this” and to adhere to the measures put in place.
“The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life,” he said.
The preschools and daycares for children aged 0-6 will also reopen in virus hotspots, also known as red zones, currently mainly ultra-Orthodox areas where infections remain high. But most lockdown restrictions will remain in place in these areas until at least midnight Wednesday, according to authorities. These areas include Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Beitar Ilit, Modi’in Ilit, Elad, the northern town of Rechasim, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Kiryat Mattersdorf.
The top official charged with leading Israel’s response to the coronavirus warned Saturday evening against becoming complacent.
Speaking in a televised address, Ronni Gamzu thanked Israelis for adhering to the rules, but warned that the country was far from being out of the woods.
Gamzu said Israel still had to slip to below 1,000 cases a day while keeping below the 0.8 reproduction rate figure to move to the next stage of the Health Ministry’s gradual, several-month exit plan based on epidemiological benchmarks.