Some 100 passengers who landed Wednesday afternoon at Ben Gurion Airport on a flight from New York were told on arrival in Tel Aviv that they were to be immediately sent to mandatory quarantine at a hotel in Jerusalem per a new government order — but were released home a few hours later.
Channel 12 TV news later reported that one of the passengers on the United Airlines flight learned upon returning home in Israel that a test he took in New York had returned positive for coronavirus.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had earlier in the day reinstated a plan to require all arrivals from abroad to be quarantined in a hotel or other designated facility for 14 days over concerns they may be infected with the coronavirus. This came a day after it was revealed that he had nixed a similar plan.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said that the policy was effective immediately. However due to what the Defense Ministry, which is in charge of implementation of the plan, called “legal and procedural complications,” passengers who flew in from New York on Wednesday afternoon were eventually told that if they did not have a fever or were not showing any signs of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, they were free to return home.
The Defense Ministry said that passengers were permitted to leave after signing a guarantee they would remain in self-isolation. However, the Ynet news site reported that some left the airport without signing the declaration.
A spokesman for the ministry said 15 people had requested to go into quarantine as they had nowhere to self-isolate and were sent to the Prima Hotel in the capital.
According to Channel 12, one of the travelers on the plane had taken a coronavirus test in New York and learned he was sick with COVID-19 upon landing in the country.
On Wednesday evening, in a statement to the nation, Netanyahu said that from Thursday, everybody entering Israel would be sent to mandatory quarantine.
Earlier, Channel 12 broadcast footage of a soldier with a megaphone informing the new arrivals of the hotel quarantine requirement. Many of the travelers seemed angered by the measure since they had expected to go into self-quarantine at home. The announcement came a week before the Passover holiday begins, for which they were likely returning to the country.
The passengers were met on landing by officials in white protective suits who took their temperatures. They were then gathered — at a safe distance from each other — to be briefed about their impending mandatory quarantine at the Prima Hotel in the capital, one of several hotels around the country being operated by the IDF Home Front Command as quarantine centers.
Some of the passengers were “very angry” at the prospect, Channel 12 reported. In the event, however, most of the new arrivals were sent home.
Commenting on Wednesday’s events at his daily briefing, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said he had only read of the prime minister’s decision, taken while the passengers were in mid-air, in the media. “We are now working rapidly to take the prime minister’s decision, formulate a work plan and we will present it to him either today or tomorrow.”
Bennett added that Netanyahu’s instruction to quarantine every returning Israeli in hotels would cost the state some NIS 400 million ($111 million) a month.
“I don’t think we have fully optimized. We will present to the prime minister our plan which is smart and efficient and I am sure he will accept it. It is not possible to house 50,000 Israelis in hotels at the expense of Israeli citizens who are already collapsing [under the economic burden caused by the coronavirus].”
Bennett himself had presented his own plan last week for quarantine of citizens returning from virus hotspots such as New York, however on Tuesday, following reports of Israelis entering freely without even being checked on landing, he acknowledged that the plan had been shelved.
Former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barabash told Channel 12 after Bennett’s revelation Tuesday that due to this “idiotic management,” Israel was in danger of “simply becoming a branch of New York” — the US state where nearly 2,000 people have now died and some 100,000 have been infected.
There have been over 6,000 cases of the virus in Israel and 25 deaths.
Judah Ari Gross and Itamar Sharon contributed to this report.