Government said to weigh shuttering airport for non-essential travel

At least 10% of COVID infections in recent weeks are from returnees; officials urgently looking to impose restrictions on flights; 22,000 depart Ben Gurion on Sunday

Travelers at Ben Gurion Airport on July 15, 2021. (Flash90)
Travelers at Ben Gurion Airport on July 15, 2021. (Flash90)

Israel may close Ben Gurion Airport for leisure trips if virus cases continue to climb, according to a Sunday television report.

Some 10 percent of virus cases in recent weeks have been individuals arriving from abroad, according to Health Ministry data.

According to Channel 12 news, health officials are considering immediately requiring all returnees to self-isolate for seven days upon arrival, instead of the current 24-hour quarantine required for those arriving from countries not considered to have high rates of infection.

Additional steps being weighed for travelers are expanding the list of countries to which Israelis are barred from flying, and allowing travel only for those who are vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, the report said.

The network stated that officials are considering closing the airport entirely for all non-essential travel if cases continue to rise. But it added that this would not happen immediately, and that Israeli travelers would be given enough time to prepare if such a move is ultimately decided upon.

Some 22,000 travelers departed from Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday, apparently ignoring the prime minister’s plea not to fly amid the resurgence of COVID-19 in Israel and worldwide.

Travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport, on June 30, 2021, heading for COVID-19 tests. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

The crowds at the airport came just two days after restrictions took effect requiring all passengers to self-isolate for 24 hours upon arrival or until receipt of negative COVID test results, and the list of countries to which Israelis are barred from flying was updated with more nations.

“I think people are tired of sitting at home, tired of these restrictions, and people have slightly lost their fear. We feel that this is all already behind us,” a passenger waiting in one of the massive queues told the Ynet news site.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett last week recommended Israelis cancel their summer trips abroad. “Soon the whole world will become ‘red,’ and your trip will be canceled anyway, so don’t even book,” he said.

Starting Friday, those returning from 15 countries deemed to have high infection rates will be required to quarantine for a full seven days with a negative test result, according to the ministry’s updated guidelines. The full quarantine period was recently shortened from the previous 10-14 days.

The countries considered to have high infection rates are the United Arab Emirates, Seychelles, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Bolivia, Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Tunisia.

Starting next Friday, July 23, the following countries will be added to the list: the United Kingdom, Cyprus, Turkey, Georgia, Uganda, Myanmar, Fiji, Panama, Cambodia, Kenya, and Liberia.

It is widely expected that the number of Israelis traveling abroad will further increase in August, if the airport is not closed down by then.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash on Sunday issued a fresh plea for Israelis to avoid traveling overseas for their summer vacations, noting coronavirus cases are rising in numerous countries.

“It’s not the time to fly abroad,” Ash said in a media briefing. He added that his office is examining ways to limit flights, without elaborating further.

New Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash, at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on July 13, 2021. (Flash90)

Also from next Friday, Spain and Kyrgyzstan will be added to the list of countries with extreme rates of infection, to which Israelis are barred from flying, provided that a government committee approves the ministry’s request.

The countries that are currently off-limits for Israelis are Uzbekistan, Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico, and Russia.

Israelis who enter the country after visiting any of those nations can face a NIS 5,000 ($1,500) fine, and will also be required to enter quarantine until receiving a valid negative test.

Following an assessment on Sunday, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said that COVID testing centers will be expanded in the periphery areas of the country, and the hours of testing centers in Tel Aviv and Petah Tikva will be extended, in addition to most testing centers beginning to once again operate on weekends.

Health Ministry figures showed 430 new cases were confirmed on Saturday. That came after daily infections topped 1,100 on Friday. An additional 515 cases were identified as of Sunday afternoon.

Of the 32,669 tests performed Saturday, 1.47 percent came back positive — a similar rate to that seen in recent days.

There are 6,598 active virus cases in the country, Health Ministry data showed, while the death toll stood at 6,448. The number of serious cases was at 61.

Health officials have linked the recent spike in infections in Israel to travelers who brought back new variants of the virus from abroad and did not properly quarantine after arriving.

The resurgence of coronavirus in Israel has been largely attributed to the spread of the Delta variant, which was first detected in India and is believed to be twice as contagious as the original COVID strain.

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