Cabinet ministers on Monday approved the reopening of stores, gyms, hotels, and other venues from Sunday, in a major easing of sweeping lockdown measures meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.
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 high-level coronavirus cabinet also okayed the reopening of synagogues for the Purim holiday late next week, while pushing off a decision on whether to allow all students to return to school in localities with low infection rates.
The decisions come amid a continued decline in morbidity rates, particularly among high-risk groups, thanks to Israel’s rapid vaccination campaign.
Under the plan approved by ministers, the restrictions will be rolled back Sunday, February 21, in an apparent compromise between health officials’ desire to wait for Tuesday, February 23, and the Blue and White party’s demand to start reopening this week.
Israel’s so-called coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, said anybody gaining unauthorized access to restricted areas and events will be subject to harsh punishment. An app and barcoded certificates are being organized, which Israelis will be able to download to show that they have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19, he said.
The decision marks a major move toward normalcy in the country, during the ongoing national vaccination drive. Many of the institutions set to open Sunday have been shuttered for the better part of the past year due to the pandemic.
Synagogues and other houses of worship will be permitted to reopen on Friday, with attendance limited to 10 people indoors and 20 outside.
The coronavirus cabinet barred festivities and other gatherings over Purim next weekend, while restricting attendance at holiday meals to immediate family members.
Health officials have expressed concern that festive gatherings will spark another wave of contagion. Last year’s Purim is believed to have been a major contributor to Israel’s first wave of infections.
Students in grades 5-6 and 11-12 in “green” and “yellow” municipalities will be allowed to return to in-person learning on Sunday. Ministers will convene again later in the week to decide about allowing additional grades to get back to the classroom.
Almost 4 million Israelis have now had at least one vaccination dose and 2.5 million — over a quarter of the population — have received both shots. However, there has been a noticeable reluctance among Israelis below the age of 50 to get the injections, including among teaching staff.
Before the start of Monday’s meeting, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein lashed out at teachers who have not yet been vaccinated.
“A teacher who doesn’t vaccinate is abandoning students’ welfare and failing his job,” Edelstein tweeted.
He went on to stress that the government is seeking to pass a bill that will require all workers who have a high exposure to the public to be vaccinated, or have a virus test every two days.
“We will not compromise on public welfare,” Edelstein wrote.
According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 3,450 new coronavirus cases were confirmed Sunday, which along with another 3,565 since midnight brought the number of cases since the pandemic began to 729,373. Of the 53,957 active cases, there were 979 Israelis in serious condition, including 307 on ventilators.
The death toll stood at 5,406, with 32 fatalities recorded Sunday.
The ministry said 47,399 people were tested for COVID-19 on Sunday, with 7.6 percent of tests coming back positive. It added that 44,286 had so far been performed Monday and that the positive test rate was 8.3%.