Supermarkets and shopping centers across Israel were jammed Friday morning as customers rushed to stock up on supplies — this time not due to the pandemic but instead ahead of the Sabbath followed by the festival of Passover, set to begin Saturday night.
With most stores closed on Saturday and observant Jews in any case not shopping on that day, Friday was the last chance for many to complete any chores ahead of the labor-intensive holiday.
In stark contrast to last year when Israelis celebrated only with their nuclear families and were banned from leaving their homes for the first night of the festival, Passover gatherings will be permitted to take place in accordance with Health Ministry guidelines — up to 20 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
As well as its religious significance, Passover for Israeli Jews has a certain cultural similarity to Thanksgiving in the United States as an annual holiday feast that traditionally sees families gather together, sometimes in large numbers.
Last year saw a number of politicians and senior officials flouting the rules and gathering with family members for the seder — the festive meal on the first night of the holiday — in contravention of regulations at the time.
However, this year there are far fewer restrictions — to the point that Israel’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, joked earlier this month that he’d been asked by some to impose limits on gatherings to avoid hosting large groups of people for festive Passover meals in their homes.
“I think that 20 people for the Seder dinner is good enough this year. I get requests to reduce that [number by] people who want to host fewer [people],” Ash quipped.
The week-long holiday was also set to see events across the country as more venues were allowed to open with larger crowds.
Recent infection figures in Israel represent a dramatic improvement over the past two months, credited chiefly to the successful vaccination campaign. The success comes despite more-infectious virus variants proliferating and the gradual lifting of restrictions.
The virus’s basic reproduction number, representing the average number of people each virus carrier infects, was given as 0.59 on Friday morning, a slight increase for the first time in two weeks. Any figure under 1 means the outbreak is abating. The figure represents the situation as of 10 days ago due to the incubation period.
Health Ministry data released Friday showed that since the start of the pandemic 831,228 people in Israel have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, with 11,708 active patients.
Israel’s serious COVID-19 cases dropped to 470 people in serious condition, including 212 on ventilators.
Of the 65,406 virus tests conducted on Thursday, 1.3% returned positive, continuing the steep decline since January when the positive test rate reached over 10%.
The death toll stood at 6,164.