A joint police and Health Ministry team is shown in Jerusalem on March 24 checking up on a man who had recently returned from abroad. (Photos by Maya Margit)

Israeli Cops Enforce Lockdown (with VIDEO REPORT)

Police pay visits to some 32,000 individuals in self-isolation as part of coronavirus fight

The three men in white ascend the stairs.

It is a sunny afternoon in Jerusalem; the trees are sprouting new leaves and the flowers are blooming in vivid yellows, pinks and reds following a long and rainy winter.

Wearing surgical gloves, plastic face shields and masks, one of the men – a tablet computer in hand – knocks on the door.

“Hello, how are you?” the man in the hazmat suit asks the elderly woman inside.

“I’m fine,” comes the reply.

“We’re from the Health Ministry and the Israel Police, and we’ve come to check up on people in quarantine. You just returned from abroad, correct?”

“I returned on March 13,” the woman replies.

“From Italy?” the policeman presses.

“Yes, yes.”

“Until the 27th [of March], don’t go outside, and keep your distance from others,” the man in the white suit cautions. “If you feel any symptoms like a fever or anything else, call the health hotline and they will help.”

The woman shuts the door and the trio makes its way back downstairs and outside, their hazmat suits striking a strange chord in the quiet residential street.

Israeli police and representatives of the Health Ministry check up on people in quarantine on March 24 in Jerusalem.

To date, police have made about 32,000 such visits across Israel to people who are required to be in isolation on suspicion of carrying novel coronavirus. With strict limits on gatherings and movement, authorities have handed out 163 warnings and fines to those disobeying health regulations.

As the number of infected continues to rapidly rise, the Health Ministry and the government have opted to tighten restrictions even further.

Following a recent decision to limit people to a 100-yard radius of home, a near-total lockdown is in place and police have significantly boosted patrols. Soldiers could be deployed to help them minimize the number of people outside, prevent stores from opening and ensure no illegal gatherings take place.

The coronavirus has in fact sparked one of the largest security operations in Israeli history, according to national police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, who said 138 people were under investigation for breaking quarantine.

Israel Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld looks at a computer tablet in a patrol car while checking up on quarantined people in Jerusalem on March 24.

Israelis returning from abroad, as well as those suspected of carrying the virus, are required to self-isolate for a period of 14 days.

“This is absolutely the first time that the Israeli national police are going to implement, if necessary, a full-scale closure here in Israel,” Rosenfeld told The Media Line, which accompanied police forces as they patrolled Jerusalem.

“We have the database from the [police] on the computer systems that we’re using. We also have the database from the Health Ministry that we’re using, and a database [from the Border Police] of individuals who have come from overseas,” he said.

“So we have an overall picture of how many people as of today are meant to be inside closed, isolated areas. As of now we’re talking about over 50,000 Israelis who are still in quarantine,” he explained, adding that the police were also working in coordination with the Shin Bet domestic security service.

The Shin Bet is at present tracking confirmed and suspected coronavirus patients across the country via cellphone location data. Hundreds of Israelis have so far received SMS messages notifying them that they must go into quarantine based on data that they had come in contact with infected people.

Thousands of police officers have meanwhile been deployed ensure that those who are in self-isolation abide by ever-changing regulations.

When paying quarantined people a visit, police must visually identify them, as was the case when The Media Line and a team of officers and representatives from the Health Ministry stopped by another Jerusalem home.

“Do you have a mask that you can wear?” an officer asked a young man who had just returned from a trip to North America and was now quarantined in his basement.

“Yes I do,” the man responded.

“Come up to the front door and ask others in the house to go into another room for a moment,” the officer directed. “Come to the entrance of the house and stand here so we can identify you.”

Police make contact with a man in quarantine in a Jerusalem basement on March 24.

As members of the team stood a safe distance from the doorway, they asked the man if he had any symptoms. He answered in the negative. Before leaving, they advised him to call the national health hotline should he feel ill.

While the checks seemed to go smoothly, Rosenfeld revealed that teams had run into trouble with less cooperative individuals.

“At the beginning, they get scared, and they’re worried about why we’re turning up and maybe [wondering whether] we’re going to take them to a hospital,” he said. “But we explain to the public very carefully that everything we do is for a reason….”

Team members are not taking any chances, opting to wear hazmat suits for visits where a person has returned from a country with a high number of coronavirus cases.

In the event that a person is found to be breaking quarantine, police send a notification to all units in the area and carry out a full-scale search.

“As far as we’re concerned, [this person will] be on the list as being ‘wanted,’” Rosenfeld said. “We have to get a hold of him. We have to find him because he’s endangering the rest of the public, whether he does it deliberately or not.”

And it is not always simple.

“We have to enforce new laws,” Rosenfeld said. “Those laws are changing all the time, that’s what’s also very significant. The laws that were there 48 hours ago are different from today.”

Eli Shefer, deputy head of the Health Ministry’s enforcement and inspection division, told The Media Line that while many at first refused to obey directives, most now understand their importance.

“We really hope that these new directives will bring about an improvement, but we’re prepared to act as needed,” Shefer stressed. “Estimates say that we will be in this situation for a few months, but things are very dynamic….”

It was clear that a new reality had set in. Birds chirped and flowers bloomed. It was one of the first days of spring and nature’s renewal was on full display, but few were venturing outside to see it.

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