Israel slaps curbs on gatherings, masks on partygoers ahead of New Year’s Eve

Outdoor gatherings of 100 or more to require Green Pass, and mask mandate reimplemented for events with 50 or more people, as Omicron pushes case tally above 4,000 for second day

People line up at the entrance of a COVID-19 rapid antigen Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People line up at the entrance of a COVID-19 rapid antigen Magen David Adom testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israeli authorities imposed new restrictions on gatherings Thursday, as coronavirus case numbers surged above 4,000 daily infections for the second straight day, the Health Ministry said.

Ministers okayed rules requiring a Green Pass for outdoor cultural or religious events with 100 people or more, and the head of the Health Ministry signed a directive slapping a mask mandate back on outdoor gatherings half that size. The moves appeared designed to head off a feared spike in new cases fueled by New Year’s revelers spreading the ultra-contagious Omnicron variant.

The new rules were effective as of Thursday evening, the Health Ministry said, though they will only come before Knesset lawmakers early next week for necessary approval.

Previously, only outdoor gatherings of 1,000 people or more required a Green Pass, which is given to those who are fully vaccinated or have recently recovered from the virus. Unvaccinated attendees must present a negative COVID-19 test.

Israel lifted an outdoor mask mandate in April and only recommended they continue to be worn at large gatherings. The new rules will now require them at gatherings of 50 people or more

The new directives were announced Thursday evening, hours after experts told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that Israel will likely soon reach 20,000 cases a day.

Thursday saw 4,085 new cases between midnight and 10:30 p.m., with the final daily tally expected to be considerably higher. On Wednesday, 4,061 new cases were confirmed. The numbers are the highest seen in Israel since late September.

The spike, thought largely fueled by the Omicron variant, has pushed active infections past 22,000 — more than double the figure recorded a week earlier.

Alongside the rising morbidity figures, serious cases reached 92 on Thursday night. Of those patients, 45 were defined as critical. The majority of seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

The rate of infection stood at 1.62, the Health Ministry said, the highest level since late June.

Weizmann Institute Prof. Eran Segal, who advises the government, said the mounting case numbers tracked closely with figures previously presented to the government, predicting that Israel would reach record numbers of daily infections by next week, breaking previous highs of around 10,000.

Medical staff at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital wear safety gear as they work in the hospital’s newly reopened COVID ward in Jerusalem on December 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“It seems it will continue at the same pace for at least two more weeks,” he told Channel 12 news. “At the peak, we’ll reach 20,000 to 30,000 cases a day, though I’m not sure we’ll be able to measure it because we’ll be limited in our ability to test so many people a day.”

Many other countries are already seeing record-smashing case counts.

Omicron has pushed infection levels to record levels in recent days in the United States, Britain, France and other European countries, forcing governments to reimpose restrictions.

The number of daily new Covid cases worldwide crossed one million for the first time, according to an AFP tally Thursday, with more than 7.3 million in the last seven days.

Omicron has already started to overwhelm some hospitals in the US, the hardest-hit country, where the seven-day average of new cases has hit 265,427, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.

Harvard epidemiologist and immunologist Michael Mina tweeted that the count was likely just the “tip of the iceberg” with the true number likely far higher because of a shortage of tests.

A medical worker tends to a patient at COVID-19 intensive care unit at The Institute of Clinical Cardiology in Rome, on December 30, 2021. (Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

In Israel, the number of hospitalized patients has stayed fairly low, with signs showing Omicron may be less harmful than previous variants.

However, some experts told Bennett Thursday that the health system was at risk of being overwhelmed, Channel 12 news reported. According to the report, others warned that staffing shortages would be seen outside the health system as more people are forced into quarantine. A Hebrew University report presented to the government earlier in the month predicted that by the end of January, the number of serious cases could balloon to between 1,000 and 2,500.

Bennett on Tuesday moved to ease quarantine rules, saying the previous regimen could wind up causing “a lockdown by another name.”

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz vowed Thursday that a lockdown “is not on the table,” even as he said that officials were preparing for higher infection rates than ever before.

“We are ready for high numbers of infections and are prepared for all possibilities. The situation is under control. We prepared and practiced in advance and the situation in Israel is much better compared to the rest of the world. We gained valuable time thanks to quick and balanced actions, but that does not mean we can be complacent,” Horowitz said.

People walk with face masks on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, December 29, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“We will continue to live alongside the coronavirus,” he added.

Israel’s government has sought to avoid restrictions on movement, commonplace during previous waves of the virus, instead relying on high vaccination rates and a robust booster program.

Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash said Thursday that Israel would begin administering a fourth dose of the COVID vaccine to those with immunosuppression.

In a press conference, Ash said the decision was made “due to concerns that they are more vulnerable.”

Last week a panel of health experts approved the introduction of a fourth dose for Israelis over 60 and others at risk, but Ash chose not to sign off on the recommendation.

Ash said Thursday the panel’s approval meant he can decide when he sees fit to allow vaccination with the fourth shot.

A health worker readies a COVID-19 vaccine shot at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on December 28, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Meanwhile, leading retailers have threatened to strike if the government does not amend other new regulations that limit shopping, saying they are causing serious harm to their revenue while failing to curb infection rates.

“We warned that morbidity would not go down an iota and that is what happened,” said Shahar Turgeman, head of the Association of Retail Chains.

“It’s a fake Green Pass,” Turgeman said of the requirement to only allow people with the certificate into larger stores, while all are allowed in most shopping mall spaces.

He called on the government to cancel the rules that went into effect on Sunday by next Tuesday or face a general strike.

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