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Back to normal: Israel lifts nearly all COVID restraints as virus fades away

Tuesday marks end of Green Pass and Purple Badge requirements, meaning all venues can open to all people, with no limit on crowds, as nation looks to put pandemic in rear-view

Israelis attend a movie at the Cinema City theatre in Jerusalem on May 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israelis attend a movie at the Cinema City theatre in Jerusalem on May 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel got the first taste of a post-pandemic reality Tuesday, as the last of a series of restrictions in place for over a year lapsed amid a continuing fall in case numbers.

The Green Pass and Purple Badge systems, which had set guidelines for who can enter public venues and how those venues can operate, expired starting June 1, meaning that Israelis no longer require proof of vaccination or recovery to enter various venues, and capacity limits at stores, restaurants and other sites are lifted. There are now no caps on gatherings, indoors or outdoors.

Most businesses and schools have already returned to normal and enforcement of many health requirements that remained on paper have largely fallen away.

The only major restrictions remaining are a mandate requiring masks to be worn indoors, which is expected to be lifted soon as well, and quarantine requirements for unvaccinated people entering the country.

The scrapping of restrictions takes effect as case numbers have fallen to just 350, with only a handful of new daily cases. On Sunday, only four new cases were recorded, down from 12 on Saturday.

This comes after an intense coronavirus crisis which saw 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, with thousands more added daily, and 1,228 serious cases.

People shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on May 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The restriction rollback has largely been made possible by the country’s world-leading vaccination drive. Over 70 percent of those in Israel aged 20 or over have received two doses of the coronavirus vaccine, and the government is set to approve vaccination of adolescents as young as 12 in the coming days.

However, 49 patients with the virus remain in serious condition, 36 of them on ventilators, according to Health Ministry data published Monday afternoon. That number is down from over 100 seriously ill patients at the start of May, and over 1,200 in January, at the height of Israel’s third wave of infections.

Israel was among the first countries in the world outside of East Asia to impose major restrictions on its populace and those entering the country. Since caps on gatherings and across-the-board quarantine requirements were first introduced in early March 2020, the country has weathered three lockdowns of varying intensity, which brought life to a veritable standstill.

The empty Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, on September 20, 2020 amid the second coronavirus lockdown. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In the last several months, the country has begun to gradually open up, first to those with so-called Green Passes — given to people who have been vaccinated or already had the virus, which meant most children were left in the cold.

The lockdowns have caused billions of shekels in economic damage, with many small businesses forced to shut down for good and complaints of insufficient government help. Among the hardest hit were restaurants, and owners regularly protested what they saw as draconian and mercurial restrictions.

“From our point of view, June 1, 2021 is a holiday,” Tomer Mor, the head of a restaurateur 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’re excited to go back to hosting the public, children, adults and families, in whatever capacity the restaurant can hold, without conditions.”

An employee puts away the furniture of a restaurant in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 18, 2020, ahead of a nationwide lockdown to tackle a spike in coronavirus cases. (JACK GUEZ/AFP)

While previous restriction rollbacks in the summer and fall were met with infection rates bouncing back upward, this time case numbers have continued to bottom out, a sign that the pandemic may be largely in the rear-view mirror.

However concern remains over the potential entry of vaccine-resistant strains of the coronavirus into the country. Vietnam announced Saturday that it has discovered a new COVID-19 variant that spreads quickly by air and is a combination of the Indian and British strains. It is not yet known if current vaccines can prevent its spread.

Medical technicians test passengers for the coronavirus at Ben Gurion International Airport, on March 8, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Those fears mean quarantine requirements are expected to remain in place for travelers who have not been vaccinated, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said Sunday.

“We are not thinking about an easing [of restrictions] at Ben Gurion Airport. We will continue to test those returning to Israel and isolate them,” Levy told Army Radio. “This is the place where quarantine is important as undetected sickness 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 distancing requirement at the airport and a requirement for travelers to switch masks mid-flight and for airlines to reduce in-flight services.

Ministers voted Friday to add Russia and Argentina to Israel’s travel ban list starting 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 travel to and from Israel banned, unless special government dispensation is given.

Still, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash has urged Israelis not to vacation abroad anywhere for the time being.

People arrived to get vaccinated against the COVID-19 coronavirus at at a large vaccination center in Tel Aviv, on December 31, 2020. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Members of the Health Ministry’s national forum for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak said last week 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 it.

However, Prof. Dror Mevorach, head of internal medicine at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, told the Times of Israel that the timing of the rollback was correct.

“Cases have decreased, the virus isn’t spreading and we have no clinical disease in the country,” he said. “Even among the population that is not vaccinated the disease is not spreading. In short, we have returned to normal life.”

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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