Israel reopens stores, malls, gyms Sunday in major easing of COVID restrictions

‘Green Pass’ will allow vaccinated and recovered access to sport and culture events; health minister said to warn he will shut economy down again if Israelis flout new system

People wearing face masks take cover from the rain as they shop for groceries at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People wearing face masks take cover from the rain as they shop for groceries at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, on February 19, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel is set to roll back some of the major restrictions imposed in late December as part of a third lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, with stores, gyms, hotels and other venues allowed to reopen on Sunday morning.

Street-front shops, malls, markets, museums, and libraries will be open to all Israelis. But only those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 will be able to use gyms, enter sporting and culture events, hotels, and swimming pools.

The Health Ministry on Thursday launched the long-awaited “Green Pass” certificate which will enable those vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus to take part in various activities.

To be allowed to open Sunday, relevant businesses must scan people for the pass and only accept those carrying it.

Israel’s gradual reopening from Sunday: What you need to know

Meanwhile, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein reportedly warned that if there were violations of the Green Pass scheme, he would not hesitate to order the economy closed again.

“We will close the economy just as fast as were are now opening,” Channel 13 quoted him saying in a closed-door meeting.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein during the announcement of the “Green Pass” certification on February 18, 2021 (Health Ministry)

The coronavirus cabinet has also okayed the reopening of synagogues for the Purim holiday this coming week, while pushing off a decision on whether to allow all students to return to school in localities with low infection rates.

Synagogues and other houses of worship were permitted to reopen on Friday morning, with attendance limited to 10 people indoors and 20 outside, ahead of the Purim holiday. The rules for other gatherings were similarly relaxed, with outdoor gatherings of up to 20 people, and indoor groups of up to 10 allowed. The previous rules restricted outdoor gatherings to 10 people and indoors to five.

The decisions come amid a continued decline in morbidity rates, particularly among high-risk groups, due to Israel’s rapid, successful vaccination campaign.

However, some restrictions remain firmly in place as the country continues to cautiously step out of its third nationwide lockdown, first launched on December 27 and extended four times to combat the infection rates.

Ministers decided Thursday to keep Israel’s border crossings and middle schools closed in light of the infection rate.

A joint statement from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry said the country’s airport and land borders will remain closed for 14 more days, until March 6, except for urgent reasons.

The empty arrival hall at the Ben Gurion International Airport, February 3, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Israel suspended international flights on January 24, shortly before also closing its border crossings with Jordan and Egypt.

However, the Immigration Ministry said Thursday that six special flights were still authorized to land, carrying some 900 immigrants from Ethiopia, France, Russia, Ukraine and South America.

The new arrivals will be subject to quarantine upon arrival, the ministry said in a statement.

Ministers ruled on Thursday that children in grades 7-10 will remain at home, likely for another two weeks, due to fears of the British virus strain, which is believed to be circulating widely among Israeli youth. Other grades have resumed classes in low infection areas.

“In light of the relatively wide opening of the economy, which may bring about an increase in morbidity, and due to fears of the British mutation, it was decided at this stage to adopt a cautious approach,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the decision. “The cost of a mistake is very great.”

The move came despite fierce pressure from parent groups, including boycotts of Zoom lessons.

Schools were closed around the country for over a month under lockdown rules, before their partial reopening last week.

Under the Health Ministry plan approved last week, kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 have opened in cities designated as “green” and “yellow” in the government’s color-coding system for morbidity rates.

The Education Ministry on Thursday released a list of restrictions and requirements for educational institutions planning on holding events ahead of Purim.

Infection among children and school reopenings are a central concern during Israel’s third-wave virus outbreak. Children represent a larger proportion of infections than earlier in the pandemic, possibly due to the new virus variants and the fact that a significant percentage of adults have been vaccinated.

Children return to school in Tel Aviv, on February 11, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

A Tuesday poll found that despite a sharp increase in infections among children, only 41 percent of Israeli parents said they intend to vaccinate their kids once inoculations become available for those under 16. The poll, conducted by the Rushinek research institute, found that 29% of parents don’t plan on vaccinating their 6- to 15-year-olds, 30% are unsure, and 41% plan to do so, Channel 13 reported.

No serious side effects were registered among dozens of children under the age of 16 who suffer specific COVID-19 risk factors and whom Israel has vaccinated against the coronavirus.

An Israeli man receives a vaccine at a Meuhedet COVID-19 vaccination center in Kfar Chabad, on February 16, 2021. (Flash90)

Meanwhile, over 4.2 million Israelis have received their first vaccine dose, and over 2.8 million have gotten both shots, among the country’s population of about 9 million. Around 3 million Israelis are not currently eligible to be vaccinated, including those younger than 16 and people who have recovered from COVID-19, among others.

The Health Ministry said Friday there were 49,867 active virus cases, including over 4,000 infections diagnosed on Thursday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 743,814. The test positivity rate on Thursday was 6.2%.

There were 858 serious cases, including 295 people on ventilators. The death toll stood at 5,521.

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