Shoppers delight in Israel easing of virus curbs

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Before the coronavirus pandemic forced a nationwide shutdown, few would have thought that a trip to a Jerusalem hardware store could feel like a treat.

Israel imposed tough restrictions early in the fight against COVID-19.

But on Sunday, the first day of the Israeli working week, it started taking cautious steps towards normalcy, joining a handful of other countries.

The government allowed hardware stores and shops selling electrical goods and computer equipment to open, joining food stores and pharmacies which had been spared the widespread closure.

At a family-run tool and building supplies store, an effort was made to follow anti-virus regulations on its first day of reopening.

A masked member of staff checked customers' temperatures at the entrance where there was a dispenser for hand sanitiser.

The number admitted was controlled, with customers let in only as others exited.

Inside, however, things unravelled a bit.

Arieh Herzog, manager of the store where he has worked for more than 20 years, said clients queueing outside in the hot sun looked elated at being out of their homes.

"I saw the joy on their faces. It was like they were going on a picnic," he told AFP, as some of his customers breached the two-metre (-yard) distancing rule at checkout.

- 'Responsible, gradual plan' -

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday outlined "a responsible and gradual" plan allowing the return of some workers to offices and industry.

The next day, he signed a unity government deal with his election rival, parliament speaker Benny Gantz.

Under the three-year coalition agreement, the government will be an "emergency" body for the first six months, primarily focused on tackling a virus that has infected almost 14,000 people and cost 181 lives in Israel and caused unprecedented economic devastation.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute think-tank, 26 percent of Israelis are currently unemployed, including those forced to take unpaid leave.

The IDI forecast that unemployment would tick down in May as some businesses reopened, but warned of dark economic clouds ahead.

Hundreds of thousands will remain out of work in the country of about nine million, while "tens of thousands of businesses will collapse in the coming months", the IDI forecast.

Though there is hope that more sectors will be cleared to reopen in coming weeks, the government warned that re-closures are also possible, depending on the trajectory of the outbreak.

"If there should be an additional outbreak of corona(virus), we shall be obliged to backtrack," Netanyahu said.

Finance ministry director general Shai Babad stressed that Israel was not at "the start of exit strategy".

"We are not returning to normal," he said.

- 'Feels good' -

Hardware store shopper Shmuel Brachel, 43, is a school-trip coordinator currently unemployed due to closures forced by the virus.

Like many Israelis, his employment prospects will likely improve as the pandemic fades, but he remained cautious about the country's initial de-confinement moves.

"I'm waiting to see if the reopening of some shops doesn't lead to an increase in infections," he said.

That doesn't mean he was not happy to be out.

He clutched an inflatable pool, which he described as a survival tool after his kids had exhausted other entertainment option in the house.

"It feels good," to be out shopping, he said.