Israel on Wednesday announced a series of dramatic new measures and restrictions intended to curb the spread of coronavirus in the country, sending arrivals from five Western European nations into immediate quarantine and limiting mass gatherings throughout the country.
All Israelis returning from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland were instructed to enter self-quarantine for a period of 14 days after their last day in those countries, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at a Health Ministry press conference alongside Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and other top officials.
The decision applied retroactively to all who have come from those nations in the last 14 days.
Foreign citizens arriving from those countries will not be allowed into Israel unless they can show a proven ability to self-quarantine at a home during their stay.
An earlier report had said the US could also be added to the list of countries, but the country was absent from the Wednesday afternoon announcement, despite a dramatic increase of cases stateside.
In addition, tourists who have been to Iran, Iraq, Syria or Lebanon in the 14 days before their arrival in Israel will not be allowed in.
The ministry also announced that gatherings of over 5,000 people will henceforth not be permitted, and Netanyahu advised Israelis to avoid personal contact, including shaking hands. International conferences of any kind will not be permitted.
Another restriction is a ban on gatherings of over 100 people for people who have returned from anywhere abroad in the past 14 days.
Netanyahu told a press conference Wednesday that the virus was “a global epidemic,” possibly “one of the most dangerous in the past century.”
But he insisted that Israel “is in the best state of all nations” in containing the disease, which has so far been diagnosed in 15 Israelis and has sent thousands into quarantine.
“We are in control of the situation, thanks to the great caution we have adopted,” he said. “We have been forced to take very severe steps to slow the spread of the virus in Israel and that is what has happened. We have ordered quarantines and mass checkups that many other countries haven’t done.”
He said he would be the first to stop shaking hands, though he noted that avoiding all physical contact went against the nature of Israelis.
The Health Ministry announced several more recommendations Wednesday, including: a general recommendation to the public to keenly maintain hygienic practices; a recommendation to the Civil Service commissioner to stop all civil service members from travel abroad; a recommendation to people over the age of 60 and those with chronic health conditions (including immune disorders, diabetes, heart disease and the like) to avoid crowds and meetings with people who’ve recently been abroad, or who show symptoms of illness.
Earlier Wednesday the Health Ministry ordered hundreds of soccer fans to isolate themselves at home after it was discovered that a teenager who has been diagnosed with the disease attended a major game last week in Tel Aviv. It said anyone in his section of the stadium could be infected.
In a series of sweeping measures the ministry also instructed all 1,150 students at a high school attended by the teen, plus an elementary class in a different school where a 5th-grade teacher was diagnosed with the virus, to self-quarantine at home.
Israel has taken far-reaching steps to prevent an outbreak, previously banning entry to foreigners who were in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Italy in the 14 days prior to arriving, and compelling all Israelis recently in those areas to self-quarantine for 14 days.
In a statement last month, the Health Ministry urged Israelis to seriously consider refraining from traveling abroad. Israel was the first country to urge its citizens to refrain from international travel entirely because of the outbreak, which started in China in December and has since infected over 93,000 worldwide and claimed over 3,200 lives, almost all of them in China.
The Health Ministry has faced criticism for its extreme measures, with some saying it is unnecessarily panicking people and causing economic and diplomatic damage to the country. Ministry officials have said they prefer to take a strict line than be sorry later.