In light of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announced plan for a phased reopening of the economy and easing of restrictions, Jerusalem has reported distinctive challenges, as well as opportunities, for rehabilitation of its tourism industry, which, like major cities around the world, has been hard-hit by the coronavirus.

Touting Israel’s “tremendous success in curbing the corona epidemic,” Netanyahu announced the various reopening on May 4 of some schools for grades one through three, in addition to malls, outdoor markets and take-out restaurants. Restrictions on movement and gatherings of immediate family members were also removed.

According to Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, evaluating when Jerusalem schools and neighborhoods reopen is determined by a mathematical risk formula based on the occurrence of COVID-19 diagnoses in a given community. If the prevalence in a given population is more than one in 1,000, “there are immediate restrictions put onto the neighborhood,” Hassan-Nahoum told JNS. “These numbers are very significant and tell us what to open.”

She continued, saying “we are the only city that is tallying the sick according to neighborhoods. As the largest city in Israel, the policy of Jerusalem is to separate the sick from the healthy.”

“We have a command center in the city hall where we have the names of moderately sick, and we call them to try to convince them to go to one of our corona hotels, with special ones for haredim, Arabs and the general population,” she added.

People at the Malha Mall in Jerusalem after it reopened according to the new Israeli government orders, May 7, 2020. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

‘Tourism industry is the backbone of our country’

The use of hotels as quarantine centers, said Hassan-Nahoum, is especially important in preventing the spread of the coronavirus among individuals with big families and small living spaces.

In these rooms, the city provides for the special requirements of each population, including separation of the sexes in the haredi and Arab hotels, also providing food packages and food vouchers for Muslims celebrating Ramadan.

The virus has largely been contained among the Arab population, with “the ones affected mainly being in health-care industries,” said Hassan-Nahoum, explaining that in addition to traveling less, Jerusalemite Arabs often live in multigenerational houses and out of fear of infecting the elderly, children and grandchildren have “been careful.”

The haredi community has not seen such containment, added Hassan-Nahoum, because their densely populated homes are not non-multigenerational, so fewer precautions are taken to contain the virus. Now, with major rabbis encouraging the sick to move to a coronavirus hotel, even on Shabbat, the method has seen better success in separating the sick from the healthy.

Visitors to the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem after it reopened according to new orders by the Israeli government to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, May 7, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Regarding efforts to restore internal tourism to Jerusalem’s holy sites, which will be essential to the future reopening of the external tourism industry, Hassan-Nahoum said “piggy-backing from national tourism plan, we want to start opening our public open-air spaces first, limit the number of guests, take their temperatures, require masks and incentivize local tourism first.”

“The tourism industry is the backbone of our country, and people need to get back to their businesses,” she emphasized. “We have just gone from our country’s highest employment rate to the lowest in its history.”

The first step, said Hassan-Nahoum, was the reopening of various Jerusalem sites and centers, from the Western Wall to the Machane Yehuda outdoor market.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation announced on May 5 that “due to the government’s decision to cancel the restriction of prayer only at a distance of up to 500 meters from one’s place of residence while maintaining the restriction of up to 19 people during prayer in an open area, worshippers may return to the Western Wall while adhering to the Health Ministry directives.”

Preparations for the easing of the restrictions at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lifted certain lockdown regulations that were in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, May 5, 2020. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90.

Bar and bat mitzvah celebrations are now able to return to the Western Wall in accordance with regulations and coordinated in advance.

“For the next few days,” the Heritage Foundation continued, “up to 300 worshippers will be allowed to come to the Western Wall plaza simultaneously, contingent on them wearing masks. Should all of the prayer areas become full, worshippers will be requested to wait outside the entrances to the Western Wall with the required distances between them until space becomes available.”

The sites of Western Wall tunnels and Temple Mount—the latter specifically closed for Jews, while the Waqf is allowed—remain closed until further notice.

Like commercial centers around the rest of the country, Jerusalem’s malls, markets and gyms reopened on May 7, with the Ministry of Health offering guidelines for the number of entering customers at one given time and the space required between them.

“In tourist cities, we need to rethink how we gather in spaces and use new technology [for that purpose],” said Hassan-Nahoum.

She suggested an application to track the number of people in a space, where people might need to wait to enter “like a car park,” and with tourists receiving a stamp after having their temperatures taken so they don’t need to be tested multiple times.

The public will likely receive this well, she maintained, as “people in general are more careful” and “need to get back to their businesses.”


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