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Israel said planning pre-flight tests, color coded countries as skies reopen

After ministers agree to widen flight availability from August 16, Airports Authority publishes tender to operate on-site lab, with passengers tested 72 hours before departure

The empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
The empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

With Israel closed to foreign nationals since March and nearly all countries barring Israelis from visiting, air travel has been at a trickle for months. That is expected to change on August 16, with plans to “reopen the skies” to a greater number of incoming and outgoing flights.

On Wednesday, the so-called coronavirus cabinet said a proposal would be put together by Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

A tentative draft of the possible plan will see nations divided into “red” and “green” states, according to a Thursday report from Channel 12 news

Arrivals from green states, where infection numbers are low, will be allowed to enter Israel without quarantine, while those from red states will need to self-isolate — though the number of days may be shortened from the current 14, according to the channel, which did not cite a source for the information.

The arrivals from “red” and “green” countries would be processed in different locations.

The plan may or may not reflect how Israel ultimately tackles the reopening of its borders, but provides an insight into preliminary government thinking on the matter.

It isn’t clear where Israelis will be allowed to travel, however, as Israel has one of the highest morbidity rates in the world per capita, and many countries, including the European Union, currently ban visitors from there.

Israelis can currently enter the United States and Ukraine, and the Channel 12 report said there were currently talks with 10 “green” nations about letting in Israelis, including Greece and Cyprus.

Many countries currently demand that arrivals show a negative coronavirus test from 72 hours prior to their flight. In order to accommodate this requirement, a coronavirus drive-through testing lab will be opened at Ben Gurion Airport. Passengers will be required to come by the airport 72 hours prior to their flight to be tested.

Passengers will pay for their tests, with costs estimated at several hundred shekels per test.

Grounded El Al planes at Ben Gurion Airport on April 6, 2020. (Moshe Shai/ Flash90)

A tender for building and operating the lab was published Thursday by the Israel Airports Authority. Applicants are required to be able to carry out 800 tests an hour and to provide results within 14 hours.

Flight crews on planes are expected to wear protective gear, and it is not yet known if meals will be served.

Tickets are not yet on sale, as plans have not been finalized.

Israel’s infection rate remains high, averaging some 1,400 cases a day over the past week, though it has dropped somewhat from around 2,000 cases a day over a period of two weeks last month.

On Wednesday the government decided to cancel weekend closures on shopping centers, stores and markets that were implemented to stymie the spread of COVID-19, after establishing that the rules don’t drive down coronavirus infection rates.

But the official tasked with handling the virus response warned the country could yet see a nationwide lockdown in two weeks’ time if infection rates don’t drop.

“No country in the world with a high rate of infection like Israel’s is handling the crisis without a lockdown. The Israeli government is sensitive to the delicate socio-economic situation and public hardships and gave me trust in a way that does not include a full closure,” coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu said, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

“This is likely the last opportunity for moderation. If morbidity does not decrease within two weeks we will be forced to consider restrictions, including the possibility of local or national lockdowns,” Gamzu said.

In addition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said the government will begin implementing the color-coded coronavirus system, under which cities and towns will have coronavirus policies adapted to their local rates of infection, by September 1.

As of Thursday evening, Israel had 25,285 active coronavirus cases, 358 of them serious, and the death toll from COVID-19 was 576.

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