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Restaurants, event venues, other sites reopen after last-minute cabinet approval

After delays, ministers approve return of many businesses; citizens allowed to return from abroad; studies to resume for grades 7-10 and in universities, colleges

People eat at the Azura restaurant in Jerusalem, on March 7, 2021, after Israel reopened restaurants, bars and cafes to vaccinated "green pass" holders (Menaham Kahana / AFP)
People eat at the Azura restaurant in Jerusalem, on March 7, 2021, after Israel reopened restaurants, bars and cafes to vaccinated "green pass" holders (Menaham Kahana / AFP)

The cabinet on Saturday night gave a final stamp of approval to the reopening of much of the economy, starting on Sunday, including restaurants, cafes, school grades 7-10 in low-to-medium infection areas, event venues, tourist attractions and hotel dining.

It also approved new regulations at Ben Gurion Airport that sideline a highly controversial committee that was deciding who could enter the country while the airport remained largely shuttered.

There will no longer be an approval process for returning Israelis. In the coming days, 1,000 people a day will be able to enter the country from four locations — New York, Frankfurt, London and Paris — with the number expected to go up to 3,000 later this week.

Eateries are allowed to host up to 100 people with Green Passes — indicating vaccination or recovery from the virus — indoors at up to 75 percent capacity, while seating up to 100 people outside, even without passes. Tables must be two meters apart. Outrage by restaurateurs over plans to require distances of 2.5 meters led that demand to be shelved.

Additionally, higher education institutions and religious seminaries were opened to vaccinated or recovered people.

Event halls are allowed to open at 50 percent capacity and with up to 300 people with Green Passes. Up to five percent of attendees can be individuals without passes but with recent negative virus tests.

Gatherings of 20 people are allowed indoors, and 50 outdoors.

People wear protective face masks as they walk through the Carmel market in Tel Aviv, on March 4, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Places of worship are allowed to operate at partial capacity, and higher attendance is allowed at sporting and culture events for Green Pass holders.

Grades 7-10 are allowed to attend classes in person for the first time in about a year in towns with low-to-medium infection rates — though the need to break classes up into smaller groups will mean each student will be in class only twice a week.

Tourist attractions were opened for Green Pass holders and hotel dining rooms were allowed to resume hosting guests, at limited capacity.

A border crossing with Jordan will open up to twice a week, and the border with Egypt will be opened once to allow any Israelis there to return.

The punishment for violation the rules is a fine of NIS 5,000 ($1,500).

Related: Israel reopens: All the new rules from March 7

The cabinet had initially been set to vote on the regulations on Friday, but the vote was delayed, reportedly due to a delay in writing the regulations by legal advisers.

The delay, as well as last-minute plans to alter some regulations, enraged restaurant owners who said the constant uncertainty was making it impossible to prepare properly for reopening.

People wear protective face masks as they sit at Habima Square in Tel Aviv, on March 4, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Channel 12 reported on Friday that only around 6,000 restaurants were set to reopen on Sunday, out of over 14,000 that operated before the pandemic. Around 4,000 restaurants have closed for good, the report said.

Israel in February began easing restrictions following a third lockdown, and has since gradually reopened stores and shopping malls (for everyone); as well as gyms, swimming pools, hotels and some cultural facilities for those with Green Passes.

New coronavirus deaths and infections in Israel have continued to decline from highs in January, and the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients has dropped to its lowest point since last year.

Vaccinations are lagging in the ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations, however, and infections have been higher in those groups.

Channel 13 reported on Friday that infections in the ultra-Orthodox community have declined recently, while cases in some Arab communities have spiked.

According to Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute, some 87% of all Israelis aged 16 and up who aren’t ultra-Orthodox or Arab have either recovered from COVID-19 or received at least one vaccine dose.

A young Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem, on February 4, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The equivalent figure for the ultra-Orthodox community was 72%, while the lowest immunization rate, 64%, has been observed among Arab Israelis.

Most Arab-majority cities are designated as “red” areas with high infection rates. In the Arab city of Umm al Fahm, the weekly infection rate has climbed by 45% and the test positivity rate is 18%, the report said.

The majority of ultra-Orthodox communities are now deemed “orange” zones with a lower infection rate than red areas, Channel 13 reported. In the city of Beitar Illit, weekly infections dropped 33%, in Modiin Illit, 15%, and in Elad, 28%.

Despite the overall decline in severity of Israel’s third-wave outbreak, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Friday that Israel could yet be forced to enter a fourth lockdown to combat the spread of the virus as the infection rate inched back up.

Health Ministry figures showed the virus’s basic reproduction number, or R-number, was at 1.01 Friday morning, indicating the overall number of cases was growing slowly. The R-number had been below 1 since late January.

However, coronavirus testing also showed its lowest positivity rate in months, with some 3,716 tests coming back positive Thursday out of 105,000 tests — or some 3.6%.

Serious cases stood at 710 on Saturday evening.

Netanyahu claimed Thursday that Israel was largely done with the coronavirus, saying that it was the first country in the world to put the pandemic behind it, thanks to its quick and efficient vaccination campaign.

However, unnamed health officials told the Maariv newspaper that there were concerns the reopening plan was being influenced by Netanyahu’s political considerations ahead of the March 23 elections.

According to ministry figures, the case tally since the start of the pandemic was at 799,727 including 40,565 active cases.

The death toll was at 5,856.

Additionally, 4,925,155 Israelis have received a first vaccine dose, and 3,705,330 have also received a second. Several million Israelis are currently ineligible for the vaccine, most of them under the age of 16.

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