Israel’s third nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 was eased on Sunday at 7 a.m. after over a month, as the country continues to grapple with thousands of daily new cases and a death toll that has reached well over 5,000.
The lockdown was initially scheduled to lift partially on Friday, after over a month, but a cabinet agreement late Thursday extended the closure to Sunday following an hours-long meeting and heated exchanges between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
As of Sunday morning, restrictions on individual travel to within 1,000 meters of people’s homes have been lifted; nature reserves, national parks, heritage sites, and Israel Antiquities Authority sites will reopen to the public; businesses that do not cater to the public will reopen; restaurant takeout services and businesses with individual interactions, like hairdressers and cosmeticians will be allowed to operate; and vacation rentals will be allowed to cater to single families.
As of Saturday evening, there was no agreement regarding the reopening of kindergartens or grades 1-3. A government statement Friday said a decision on this would be made following separate discussions between the Health and Education Ministries.
The government is expected on Sunday at 5 p.m. to extend the closure on the education system by 48 hours to Tuesday, both Channel 12 and Channel 13 reported Saturday.
Tomer Lotan, a senior official in the Health Ministry, told Channel 12 Saturday that kindergartens and the lower elementary school grades could be reopened in cities and towns deemed “green” and “yellow” under the government’s “traffic light” system signaling low infection rates per capita.
According to Channels 12 and 13, the Health Ministry is strictly opposed to reopening schools in cities deemed “orange” and “red” — with high infection rates — but Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Saturday said the ministry would “consider the possibility” of reopening some educational frameworks in these cities, especially for younger children, if precautionary measures are taken.
Meanwhile, Ben Gurion Airport will remain closed until at least February 20, according to a government decision on Friday. Israel’s main international airport has been almost entirely shuttered since January 25, except for cargo planes and emergency aircraft, as authorities seek to prevent the entry of people who might be carrying coronavirus variants, such as those that have contributed to the latest spike in case numbers.
Israel’s third lockdown appears to be the least effective one since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data presented by the Ynet news site.
The number of patients in serious condition when entering the first lockdown last March was just seven, and 101 when it ended two months later. The second lockdown began in September 2020 with 568 serious cases, and ended with 647 about a month later.
Now, as Israel begins gradually emerging from its third lockdown, which began in early January with 949 serious cases, hospitals are struggling to cope with over 1,000 coronavirus patients in serious condition.
The Ynet data also showed the rate of positive tests during each lockdown, with the first beginning with 3.7%, and ending with just 1.7%. The second lockdown began with 9.4% and ended with 4.5%. The third lockdown, which began at 4.9%, is set to end with a positive test rate of 7.8%.
According to Health Ministry figures Saturday evening, Israel recorded 6,273 new coronavirus infections on Friday out of 82,546 tests performed; 1,131 patients are listed in serious condition, including 329 who are ventilated. The death toll climbed to 5,071 as of Saturday evening, according to ministry figures.
Israel’s vaccination program with the Pfizer/BioNtech shot is ongoing, with 3,423,245 receiving the first dose. Of them, 2,011,617 had also received the second dose as of Saturday evening.
Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy told Channel 12 Saturday that the third lockdown curbed infections in Israel but that the rates are “not down to what we expected.”
Levy argued that the lockdown was necessary and that, without it, Israel would have seen tens of thousands of active cases. He also said that without the lockdown, the basic reproduction number, R — the average number of people each infected person infects — would have reached 2. Any number above 1 means the virus is spreading strongly, with R2 representing a very high infection rate.
Levy called on all Israelis over 16 to get vaccinated and said he hoped teenagers aged 12-16 would be able to get their first shots by the spring.
Speaking on Channel 13 Saturday, Finance Minister Israel Katz said Israel’s third lockdown was “absolutely the final lockdown.”