Israel Prepares to Lift Final COVID-19 Restrictions
Reopening of country continues amid record low morbidity
After nearly 15 months of total closure, cinemas in Israel opened their doors Thursday to thousands of eager patrons, the latest in a series of encouraging steps signaling the near-total eradication of the coronavirus pandemic across the country.
“Morbidity rates have fortunately plummeted, the vaccines have definitely done their job. We’re back to almost normal routine,” Hezi Levi, director-general of Jerusalem’s health ministry, acknowledged Thursday.
“Still, we must remember coronavirus isn’t finished. There are variants, around the world and in Israel, so we have to remain very cautious,” he added.
Next week, the country is expected to completely remove all restrictions placed on businesses earlier this year, allowing stores, shopping centers, restaurants and other venues to fully reopen to the public, including customers who have not been vaccinated or recovered from the virus.
“Israel is returning to normal,” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced earlier this week. “Thanks to the excellent work of our health system workers … we are reaping the fruits of our world-leading vaccination efforts. It is now possible to cancel the ‘Green Pass’ requirements. The Israeli people and market will be afforded some more breathing room.”
The decision, the ministry said, was reached after consulting the government’s coronavirus task force, a team of experts that has advised Jerusalem’s cabinet on the issue since the pandemic’s outbreak.
Still, we must remember coronavirus isn’t finished. There are variants, around the world and in Israel, so we have to remain very cautious
Nadav Davidovitch, chair of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians and a member of the special task force, says that is not entirely accurate.
“It’s complex. A month ago, we had a meeting where we agreed on some alleviations, like removing mask requirements, if cases were still down by early June,” he told The Media Line.
“The Health Ministry chose to go a different way, keeping the masks but ending the ‘Green Pass’ constraints. We weren’t consulted about that, or anything else, before this week’s announcement. They said they were scared it would leak,” he said.
The only limitations not yet lifted by Edelstein, serving as the lone remnants of the difficult past year, are indoor mask-wearing ordinances and restrictions on those entering Israel from certain so-called “red” countries.
“In the coming two weeks, the professional team will hold discussions regarding mask-wearing mandates in closed spaces,” the ministry’s statement read.
“Removing masks is the right step if morbidity indeed doesn’t spike,” says Davidovitch, an epidemiologist who heads the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University.
“It would be preferable to first remove them in workplaces, where you’re around the same people more or less, and only later in places like public transportation and restaurants,” he added.
Over the past few weeks, with new cases dropping sharply, Israel has steadily lifted most of its pandemic-related restrictions, allowing people to remove masks outdoors, and reopening entertainment venues and shops to vaccinated citizens.
Over 5 million Israelis, out of a total population of 9 million, have so far received both required Pfizer vaccine doses.
Only 14 cases were detected Wednesday, bringing the total number of hospitalized patients to 428, with 50 of them in serious condition.
No Israeli has died from the coronavirus since the beginning of the week.
“Honestly, the latest news doesn’t really matter. People haven’t been abiding by government orders for weeks,” Avi, 24, who runs a pet store in Jerusalem, told The Media Line.
“It’s practically over, there haven’t been new cases. Police have even stopped giving out fines for masks and other things. Nobody even knows about this latest announcement,” he said.
According to Davidovitch, the main challenge still facing the nation are potential variants of the virus.
“People entering from abroad, that’s the big concern,” he said.