Health Ministry officials reportedly said Monday that the requirement to wear face masks indoors may be lifted within two weeks if the trend of declining contagion continues despite pandemic restrictions being steadily eased.
Responding to the report by Channel 12 news, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s chief of public health, told the network she would not give a specific timeframe, but “we are taking action and checking” the possibility.
Israel has all but emerged from the pandemic, with most businesses and schools back to normal and the government announcing the imminent reopening of movie theaters and arts venues following the country’s world-leading vaccination drive over the past few months.
Health officials are still keeping in place restrictions on incoming travelers, and are planning on tightening those restrictions to prevent the entry of potential vaccine-resistant variants.
“It’s still important to ensure that contagion does not arrive from outside,” Alroy-Preis said, reiterating a Health Ministry statement from a day earlier.
“On that front, not only will the restrictions remain, but they will be increased. We haven’t yet identified a variant that’s resilient to the vaccine,” she said. “We’re conducting many tests to prevent the entry of any such variant.”
All incoming travelers must still quarantine for about two weeks, and must receive a COVID test on their ninth day in the country, she said.
On Sunday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said that almost all remaining virus restrictions will be lifted in the beginning of next month.
A Health Ministry statement said that from June 1, Israel will lift the remaining coronavirus restrictions on gatherings, and will no longer limit entry to certain venues only to the vaccinated, following the near-vanquishing of COVID-19 in the country as a result of its successful vaccine drive.
The so-called Purple Badge and Green Pass systems will be scrapped, meaning that Israelis will no longer require proof of vaccination or recovery to enter various venues, and capacity limits at stores, restaurants and other sites will be lifted. There will be no further caps on gatherings, indoors or outdoors.
Only the wearing of face masks indoors and travel restrictions will remain in place for the time being, Edelstein said.
Earlier this month, the Health Ministry announced that it was extending the Green Pass system through 2021, and attributed the decision to Edelstein himself.
Additionally, members of the Health Ministry’s national forum for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak said Monday that no discussions had been held with experts ahead of the announcement. According to the Kan public broadcaster, one unnamed member of the forum expressed great surprise at the decision and raised questions as to the motives behind it.
Others told the outlet that they had only heard about the decision from news reports and suspected there were political motives behind the move.
However, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch told Kan on Monday that there was nothing untoward about the development, and said that the Health Ministry’s leadership had decided to take the step.
Edelstein said Sunday that the return to normal comes with a caveat.
“The Health Ministry is working to continue the low morbidity and will continue to comprehensively observe the situation to prevent an outbreak. Of course, if there is an outbreak, we will have to go back” to upholding the restrictions, he said.
Edelstein urged Israelis not to travel to countries with high morbidity rates, and to stick to distancing rules when abroad.
Israel has made dramatic gains in stamping out the virus through its vaccination campaign, driving down the number of daily cases (based on a weekly average), from 8,600 at the peak of the health crisis to just 27 this week. At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country and 1,228 serious cases; as of Monday evening, there were 514 active infections and 59 people in serious condition.
According to the ministry, over 5.1 million Israelis received both doses of the vaccine and 92% of Israelis over 50 are fully vaccinated.
The morbidity rates in the country have remained low despite the reopening of most of the economy and of the school system.