El Al suspends flights to Italy, Thailand; over 1,700 Israelis quarantined
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El Al suspends flights to Italy, Thailand; over 1,700 Israelis quarantined

Officials defend sweeping measures after first unquarantined Israeli carrier diagnosed; travelers from Italy turned back

People wearing face masks against the coronavirus at Ben Gurion Airport on February 27, 2020. (Avshalom Shoshani/Flash90)
People wearing face masks against the coronavirus at Ben Gurion Airport on February 27, 2020. (Avshalom Shoshani/Flash90)

Israeli leaders on Thursday called on the public to cooperate with new measures, some unprecedented, being implemented to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus, after the first case of an unquarantined Israeli carrier of the pathogen was confirmed earlier in the day.

“Since the health of Israeli citizens is our chief concern, we have taken steps that other countries have not,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “We were the first in the world to block flights from countries in which the virus has a significant presence.”

He spoke during a visit to the coronavirus operations center in Jerusalem established this week by the Magen David Adom ambulance service and the Health Ministry.

He called on “all Israeli citizens to obey the instructions” of health officials “and to cooperate with the authorities, but of course not to get carried away with worrying about this.”

He added that anyone who “comes here from any country in the world, who has the symptoms of the virus, [should] call MDA at [emergency hotline] 101 immediately. There are paramedics and medical personnel here who will respond and, afterwards, doctors who will question anyone with these symptoms. If it proves necessary, MDA will send paramedics to the home to carry out the test – a home test kit. This is innovative and could help prevent the spread of the disease.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Magen David Adom’s coronavirus operations center in Jerusalem, February 27, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

A day earlier, the Health Ministry took the unprecedented step of urging Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad, as officials sought to isolate the country as much as possible from the rapidly spreading global outbreak.

“If you don’t genuinely have to fly, don’t do so,” the ministry said in a travel warning.

In making the announcement, Israel became the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely over the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 80,000 worldwide and claimed over 2,700 lives, almost all of them in China.

On Thursday morning, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri added Italy to the list of nations whose residents are being barred from entering Israel, or who face significant travel restrictions. The other countries include China, Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea and Japan. Officials are also compelling all Israelis recently in those areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Deri’s decision came just an hour before the Health Ministry announced that an Israeli man who returned from Italy on Sunday had grown ill on Thursday morning and had then tested positive for the virus, the first case in which an infection has been diagnosed in the country outside of a hospital quarantine, raising fears he may have infected others.

A flight from Ben-Gurion International Airport to Rome’s Fiumicino airport, February 21, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The man is to be quarantined at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, along with Israeli passengers from the virus-struck Diamond Princess cruise ship that was moored off the coast of Japan earlier this month.

So far, at least 1,700 Israelis are in quarantine, many of them after coming into contact with a group of South Korean tourists who only tested positive for the virus after returning home earlier this month.

The entry ban for non-Israelis arriving from Italy is already in effect, the Interior Ministry said Thursday.

At least 48 foreign nationals, including at least 19 Italians, were denied entry to the country after landing at Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday, and will be flown back to their country, the Interior Ministry said.

Israeli officials defended the far-reaching steps from criticism over the rising economic and diplomatic costs.

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov at a press conference about the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv, February 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“With epidemics, before it happens they say you’re doing too much and afterward they say you did too little,” Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov said on Wednesday.

Israel did not believe it could prevent the virus from entering the country, he added, but could significantly slow its progress, minimizing its effects and preventing strain on the country’s health services.

Israel’s top infectious diseases official, Dr. Tal Brosh, said Thursday the measures were justified because Israel had easily controlled borders.

Asked in a Channel 12 interview why Israel was implementing much more drastic measures than European nations or the United States, Brosh, who leads the Health Ministry’s Infectious Diseases Unit, said, “There’s a difference with us. We’re a small country with hermetically sealed borders. We can control this. The US and Europe are wide open” and unable to meaningfully limit entry from affected areas.

Netanyahu, too, defended the measures: “I set a policy for Israel of over-preparation instead of under-preparation. There has been criticism of this, but I believed, and still believe, that a policy of exaggerated concern is the right policy because the health of Israel’s citizens is our top priority. So we took steps other countries have not taken,” he said in a Thursday statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, visits the Magen David Adom’s coronavirus operations center in Jerusalem together with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, right, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, second right, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, left, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, second left, on February 27, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The fallout from the new measures has so far been felt most acutely in the tourism and air travel industries.

El Al, Israel’s largest airline, announced Thursday it was suspending multiple routes to affected countries. They include all Italian destinations, including Milan, Venice and Rome, as well as low-cost subsidiary Sun D’Or’s flights to Naples, all of which are suspended starting Friday. All flights to and from Thailand are canceled beginning March 3. The launch of the new direct route to Tokyo, which was set to open this week, will be delayed until April 4. Plus the suspension of flights to Beijing and Hong Kong is being extended until May 2.

El Al promised to refund all tickets on the affected flights.

The airline was among several companies that warned they faced dramatic financial consequences from the current situation.

Those complaints led to the establishment earlier this week of a cabinet-level committee headed by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon charged with managing a government compensation scheme for airlines and other companies affected by the coronavirus measures.

Illustrative: An El Al plane at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv. (David Silverman/Getty Images/via JTA)

Schools, too, are feeling the effects. The Education Ministry announced earlier this week it was canceling school trips abroad, especially the annual tours of Israeli high schoolers to Nazi concentration camps in Poland.

Singer Ahinoam Nini announced Thursday she was canceling a Tel Aviv show slated for Thursday night because she must remain in quarantine after a visit to Italy.

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