By MARCY OSTER
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Thousands of Israelis quarantined due to possible exposure to the coronavirus are voting in special polling places set up to allow them to safely cast their ballots.
Sixteen special polling places opened in outdoor tents across the country on Monday. As of 4:30 p.m., more than half of the some 5,600 quarantined voters had voted. Due to the large demand, the special voting places were kept open an extra two hours until 7 p.m.
Israelis in quarantine to prevent the spread of the virus were asked to arrive at the special polling places unaccompanied by private vehicle. They were asked to not stop on the way to the polling place and to return straight home.
Trained paramedics dressed in full head-to-toe protective gear, including gloves and masks, staffed the polling locations. Votes were collected in a specially lined ballot box and were to be counted by election officials also dressed in protective gear.
“It feels hysterical. It feels over the top. But we will respect it,” Yishai Akker told The Times of Israel.
Akker has been in quarantine since Friday, when he returned from a ski trip to Italy.
Israel’s Channel 12 reported that one Jerusalem resident screamed through a megaphone at a police officer, “Don’t treat us like lepers.”
Israelis who have returned from trips to China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy are being required to self-quarantine in their homes for 14 days. So far, 10 Israelis have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Government officials assured voters that they did not need to fear heading to the polls because of the virus.
“I want to reassure the public and call again to the citizens of Israel: Vote without fear of the coronavirus,” Health Minister Yaacov Litzman said Monday morning. “The coronavirus is under control and the Health Ministry is the only one authorized to update the country on the issue.”
Israelis are voting for an unprecedented third time in less than a year on Monday after previous rounds of balloting failed to determine a clear winner. Final Israeli news polls ahead of the voting on Monday showed the leading contenders, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party and Benny Gantz of Blue and White, running neck and neck.
In September elections, Blue and White won 33 seats to Likud’s 32. In April, Likud took 38 seats to Blue and White’s 35. The latest polls show Likud collecting between 33 and 35 seats and Blue and White taking 33 or 34.