Health Ministry unveils new caps on gatherings, mask mandate

Events to be limited to 500 outdoors, 400 indoors; PM Bennett warns infection rates will still go up in the coming weeks

People walk past a sign instructing the public to wear face masks in closed places, outside the Cinema City in Jerusalem, on August 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People walk past a sign instructing the public to wear face masks in closed places, outside the Cinema City in Jerusalem, on August 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Health Ministry said Sunday that, starting from the middle of the week, Israel will reimpose caps on gatherings that will restrict attendance at private and public events, as well as rules requiring social distancing in businesses that serve customers in person, including stores and shopping malls.

The restrictions are aimed at slowing down a recent resurgence of COVID-19 infections that have taken the daily caseload to highs not seen for half a year, and after the country had reduced the spread to barely a dozen new cases a day, on average. The government is determined to avoid ordering what would be the country’s fourth lockdown since the coronavirus pandemic started, and is pushing vaccinations, along with some restrictions, as a way to confront a tide of infections expected before morbidity drops again.

Under the new orders, private gatherings are to be capped at 100 people outdoors and 50 people indoors, while at event venues, the cap will be 500 outdoors and 400 indoors. Additionally, no event can surpass 75 percent of a venue’s full capacity.

Mass events where there are no marked seats will be capped at 1,000 people indoors and 5,000 people outdoors.

Face masks will be mandatory in all closed spaces, apart from one’s place of residence, as well as in outdoor gatherings of at least 100 people. Masks are already mandatory in public indoor spaces.

All the new instructions, scheduled to come into effect Wednesday, must still be approved by the cabinet and the Knesset.

The restrictions were added at the last minute to a series of previously approved measures planned to start Wednesday, with the expansion of the Green Pass system, which grants access to venues or events to those carrying documentation showing that they are vaccinated, recovered, or took a negative PCR test in the previous 72 hours.

Starting Wednesday, the Green Pass, already in place for events attended by more than 100 people, will also apply to sports and culture events, conferences, exhibitions, hotels, gyms, pools, event halls and venues, festivals, restaurants, bars, cafes, dining rooms, museums, libraries, tourist attractions, and universities and higher education colleges.

Green Pass rules will be in effect for anyone aged 3 and up. The state will subsidize COVID-19 tests for children aged 3-11, who are ineligible for the vaccine, while those who are older — and therefore entitled to be vaccinated — will pay for the tests out of pocket.

People receive their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Modi’in, August 15, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Visiting the coronavirus ward at the Ichilov Medical Center on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned that the highly contagious Delta variant is washing across the world, including Israel.

Bennett said the country will reach a “peak in morbidity in the coming weeks” and urged Israelis to get vaccine shots, in particular those who are entitled to a third booster dose.

“Not getting the third dose is life-threatening,” Bennett said and predicted that by Tuesday, more than a million Israelis will have gotten the booster shot, which was made available to those over the age of 60 last month and is now available to over-50s as well.

“Go out and get vaccinated, today, ” he said. “Go out now.”

As of Sunday night, 925,116 people in Israel had received a booster, according to Health Ministry figures.

There were initial indications that the booster shots are helping to reduce both infections and the seriousness of the symptoms among those who get the virus, Channel 12 reported, citing research by the Gertner Institute for Health Policy.

Examination of a small sample of those who have received the third dose showed that their chances of becoming infected with COVID-19 eight days after getting the shot — when it is expected to begin working — were cut by half. The research found that just 69 people were infected compared to a control group of those with just two vaccine shots, where there were over 130 infections.

Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who advises the Health Ministry on COVID-19, found that the portion of people over the age of 60 — many of whom have now had a booster shot — among new cases has been dropping off ever since the third dose was made available. During July, over-60-year-olds were 15% of new cases, but since the beginning of August that has dropped to a current value of just 5%.

Segal also pointed to other data showing that the virus reproduction figure — the number of people each carrier passes the virus to — among those who have had just two shots is around 1.4, but for those who got the booster it was dropping close to 1. Any value below 1 means the virus spread is shrinking.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett speaks at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 8, 2021. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

Health Ministry figures published Sunday showed that 4,176 people were diagnosed with the virus the day before, a small dip consistent with the reduced testing over the weekend. The percentage of virus tests that return positive, confirming infection, has been steadily rising and reached 5.38%, compared to around just 1.4% a month ago.

Of the 47,675 active patients in the country, 525 were in serious condition, the highest number in that condition since March.

Earlier in the day, Health Minister Director-General Nachman Ash told hospital chiefs to begin cutting down on elective treatments but allowed that each medical center decide for itself on the extent of the measure.

Ash’s instruction came amid orders that every hospital in the country set up a special coronavirus ward depending on its size, and that it be ready to open another ward when the first reaches 80% capacity, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

All emergency medical centers were also told to prepare facilities for treating virus patients.

Some hospitals are planning on cutting back on 10% of surgeries this week in order to free up staff to deal with an expected rise in virus patients, whose number officials have estimated could reach over 4,000 by next month, half of whom will be in serious condition, the report said.

Despite the rising numbers, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz told Kan that the government will do everything to avoid another lockdown.

“We have said a few times that a lockdown is a last resort, only for a situation where there is no other choice,” Horowtiz said. “That is our approach now as well.”

Noting that the previous government had applied three lockdowns at a cost of NIS 200 billion to the economy, Horowitz said the current government is instead focusing on vaccinations, while introducing some limitations on gatherings.

“And we hope that these measures will help us to prevent a lockdown,” he said.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz receives his third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, August 13, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Horowitz maintained his position that the coming school year start on time on September 1, and said that vaccinations of children will take place in schools.

Acknowledging that the Education Ministry opposes administering shots during the school day, Horowitz said the two ministries will “reach understandings on how to do this.”

Among the country’s children eligible for vaccination, only 35% have been vaccinated so far, even though they are eligible for the shots, he noted.

On Sunday, members of the coronavirus cabinet, a select forum of ministers who rule on virus policy, were informed that one of those who attended their last meeting was later diagnosed with the virus, Hebrew media reported. The infected person was identified in media as Colonel Yaakov Dolf, the military attache to Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

Last month, Israel became the first country in the world to begin administering booster shots to those who are at least 60 years of age, and became a pioneer once again on Friday, as it began giving third doses to people aged 50 and older.

Out of Israel’s population of some 9.3 million, over 5.8 million had received at least one vaccine dose, and more than 5.4 million had gotten two.

Since the start of the pandemic, 938,679 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in Israel, and 6,668 have died.

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