Israel on Monday evening drastically ratcheted up its efforts to protect the country from the coronavirus threat, requiring all those arriving from abroad to go into quarantine.
All Israeli citizens returning to from overseas were ordered to self-quarantine for 14 days with immediate effect.
Non-Israeli citizens will be allowed into the country for another 72 hours. But after that, they will be barred completely unless they can demonstrate that they have a place to quarantine here for 14 days.
The move will essentially shut down tourism, and send shockwaves through Israel’s already battered travel sector.
Israel is “placing itself in international isolation,” Channel 12 news reported, anticipating that “thousands of international flights will now be cancelled.”
The measures are among the most dramatic to be introduced by any nation in the intensifying battle against the coronavirus. On February 26, Israel had become the first country in the world to advise its citizens against all non-essential overseas travel.
The latest move went into effect immediately for Israelis, but will only be applied to non-Israelis beginning Thursday night, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said. It is not retroactive for those who have already returned from trips abroad, officials said.
“This is a tough decision, but essential in order to protect public health — and the public health comes before all,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
He added that he had made the move in consultation with other ministers and experts after protracted discussions. On Sunday, he told a press conference, where he had been expected to announce restrictions for some US states, that instead he was considering taking the wider step, reportedly surprising some health officials, who had pushed for days for restrictions on Americans.
There have so far been 42 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, most of them contracted by travelers returning from abroad. Authorities have for weeks ordered measures to clamp down on foreign entries and force home-quarantines that have been seen by some as draconian and diplomatically harmful, but officials have defended them as helping keep the virus at bay. Some 22,000 Israelis are already in quarantine, the Health Ministry said Monday morning.
Unlike other quarantine orders, which were open-ended, Netanyahu said this order will be in place for two weeks. He added that further decisions were being made by the government to protect the economy. He did not elaborate.
Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar-Simantov told media that foreigners visiting the country will be granted entry if they can show that they have the means to likewise self-quarantine for 14 days.
Speaking to Channel 12 news, Deri said the development was a “very difficult decision.”
“We are a small country, more crowded than other places,” Deri said, explaining why the government nonetheless went ahead with the measures.
Deri confirmed that he had pushed for the order to not be applied retroactively because it would have scooped in upwards of 250,000 people. He told the station there would be no point in doing this because those Israelis who have returned in recent days have since had contact with their families and the public.
The decision to apply sweeping quarantine for travelers was made after meetings with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman along with all other relevant ministers, including those of finance, economy, tourism and interior, Netanyahu’s statement said.
The Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association called the quarantine decision a “death blow” to the tourism industry, Channel 12 reported.
The Health Ministry had been expected to announce the quarantine as the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it causes continue to spread around the world and the number of cases in Israel increased to 42, including the first whose source of infection was not known.
Earlier Monday, Litzman told Army Radio that a wider set of protocols was a “necessary step.”
The health minister dismissed as “fake news” the suggestion that casting such a broad net would be an attempt to not single out the United States, where infection rates appear to be rocketing. He also denied that political considerations were tainting his ministry’s decisions, saying that there was “no problem” when Netanyahu spoke with US Vice President Mike Pence about the matter on Sunday.
The virus has infected more than 110,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,800 people.