The Health Ministry on Tuesday confirmed several coronavirus cases among participants at an international judo tournament in Tel Aviv, as it defended allowing foreign athletes into the country while the airport remains largely shuttered.
The ministry said among the foreign delegations, five people tested “borderline” positive for COVID-19, most of whom were part of the judokas’ teams and not the athletes themselves. The results may indicate the individuals recently recovered from the virus, according to the ministry.
All those who tested positive were in “strict isolation” and will only be allowed to participate in the tournament if further tests come back negative, the ministry said. Anyone who tests positive will remain in quarantine.
The Health Ministry said five workers at the event also tested positive, but said they had yet to enter the facilities where the tournament is being held or had any contact with the athletes or staff.
It also defended holding the event, saying it was the last major tournament before the Olympics and that Israel promised the International Judo Federation it would go ahead.
“The tournament was planned in depth to meet the strictest standards to defend against the coronavirus and received permission from the Health Ministry before the lockdown and closure of flights,” a ministry statement said.
The ministry stressed those taking part were required to undergo tests before flying and upon arriving in Israel, and that they were adhering to social distancing rules and not competing before an audience.
Some 600 athletes from across the world arrived in Israel this week for the tournament, with the seemingly rule-bending event and lack of adherence to established coronavirus guidelines sparking controversy among health officials as well as among travelers angered by the airport closure for nearly all other cases.
Thousands of Israelis are not being allowed back into the country due to the strict limitations on flights, imposed last month in an effort to prevent virus infections and new strains arriving from abroad as part of national lockdown.
“There’s no way I should be stuck in the US for two weeks, while all sorts of athletes enter the country because they are in judo,” one Israeli man told Channel 12.
“Because judo is an Olympic sport, they care about them, while I stand here in the cold and attempt to get on a flight,” he added.
Ben Gurion Airport has been almost entirely shuttered since January 25, except for cargo planes and emergency aircraft. On Sunday, the government decided to relax the closure to allow up to 2,000 people a day to arrive in the country starting February 20.
Also Tuesday, government ministers voted to slightly ease strict limitations on gatherings, further easing lockdown measures.
Under the new rules, which will take effect Friday morning, gatherings of up to 10 people indoors and 20 people outside will be permitted, up from five and 10, respectively.
The decision to loosen restrictions on gatherings came a day after ministers approved the reopening of stores, gyms, hotels, and other venues from Sunday, in a major easing of sweeping lockdown measures.
The high-level coronavirus cabinet also okayed the reopening of synagogues for Purim late next week, while voting to ban festivities and other gatherings over the holiday weekend.
The lifting of restrictions comes amid a continued decline in morbidity rates, particularly among high-risk groups, as Israel advances with its rapid vaccination campaign.