Back to normal: Israel lifts almost all COVID restrictions as virus clears
Israel was set to have the first glimpse of the post-pandemic reality on Tuesday, as the latest in a series of restrictions in place for more than a year was set to expire as the number of cases continued to decline.
The Green Pass and Purple Badge systems, which had established guidelines for who can enter public places and how those sites can operate, expire from June 1, meaning Israelis will no longer need proof. vaccination or recovery to enter various locations, and capacity limits in stores, restaurants and other sites will be lifted. There will be no more ceilings for gatherings, indoors or outdoors.
Most businesses and schools have already returned to normal, and the enforcement of many health requirements that have remained on paper has greatly diminished.
The only major restrictions remaining will be a mandate requiring masks to be worn indoors, which is also expected to be lifted soon, and quarantine requirements for unvaccinated people entering the country.
The decision to remove the restrictions comes as the number of cases has fallen to just 350, with just a handful of new cases daily. On Sunday, only four new cases were recorded, against 12 on Saturday.
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This follows an intense coronavirus crisis that has recorded 839,475 cases in a country of just over 9 million people and 6,412 deaths. At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country, thousands more every day and 1,228 severe cases.
The decline in restrictions was largely made possible by the country’s leading vaccination campaign. More than 70% of people aged 20 or older in Israel have received two doses of the coronavirus vaccine, and the government is expected to approve the vaccination of adolescents as young as 12 in the coming days.
However, 49 patients carrying the virus remain in serious condition, including 36 on ventilators, according to data from the Ministry of Health released Monday afternoon. That number is down from more than 100 critically ill patients in early May and more than 1,200 in January, at the height of Israel’s third wave of infections.
Israel was one of the first countries in the world outside of East Asia to impose major restrictions on its population and those entering the country. Since caps on gatherings and general quarantine requirements were first introduced in early March 2020, the country has resisted three lockdowns of varying intensity, which has put life at a deadlock.
Over the past few months, the country has started to gradually open up, first to those with the so-called green passes – given to people who have been vaccinated or already had the virus, meaning that most of the children were left out in the cold.
The lockdowns are believed to have caused billions of shekels in economic damage, with many small businesses forced to shut down permanently and complaints of insufficient government assistance. Restaurants were hit the hardest, and owners regularly protested what they saw as draconian and mercurial restrictions.
“From our perspective, June 1, 2021 is a public holiday,” Tomer Mor, the leader of a restaurant advocacy group, told the Ynet news website. “This is the day our battle bears fruit, with the cancellation of the green and purple badges. We are delighted to return to welcoming the public, children, adults and families, whatever the capacity of the restaurant, without conditions.
While previous cuts in restrictions in summer and fall have met with a surge in infection rates, this time around the number of cases has continued to stabilize, a sign that the pandemic could be largely in the mirror.
However, concern remains over the potential entry of vaccine-resistant strains of the coronavirus into the country. Vietnam announced on Saturday that it has discovered a new variant of COVID-19 that spreads quickly by air and is a combination of the Indian and British strains. It is not yet known whether current vaccines can prevent its spread.
These fears mean quarantine requirements should remain in place for travelers who have not been vaccinated, Department of Health chief executive Chezy Levy said on Sunday.
“We are not thinking of an easing [of restrictions] at Ben Gurion airport. We will continue to test those who return to Israel and isolate them, ”Levy told military radio. “This is the place where quarantine is important because an undetected disease can bring the infection back to Israel.”
On Monday, the coronavirus cabinet of ministers voted to keep testing requirements in place for those entering the country, at least 72 hours before the flight and immediately after landing.
However, it repealed other restrictions, including a two-meter distance requirement at the airport and a requirement for travelers to change masks mid-flight and for airlines to cut in-flight services.
Ministers voted on Friday to add Russia and Argentina to the list of travel bans to Israel from Monday in light of rising infection rates in those places.
The two countries will join Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey as red countries with a ban on travel to and from Israel, unless that a special derogation from the government is not granted.
Still, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash has urged Israelis not to spend vacations abroad at this time.
Members of the Ministry of Health’s national forum for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak said last week that no discussions had taken place with experts before the announcement. According to public broadcaster Kan, an anonymous member of the forum expressed surprise at the decision and raised questions about the motives behind it. Others told the outlet that they only heard about the decision through news reports and suspected there were political motives behind it.
However, Professor Dror Mevorach, chief of internal medicine at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel the timing of the rollback was correct.
“The cases have gone down, the virus is not spreading and we have no clinical disease in the country,” he said. “Even among the unvaccinated population, the disease does not spread. In short, we have returned to a normal life. “
Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.