Israel will partially reopen its international airport at the end of the week, allowing in 2,000 travelers a day, the Health Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office said Sunday.
Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli airlines to bring back citizens stranded abroad.
The airport and border shutdown was aimed at preventing the import of new coronavirus strains into the country, amid fears some variants will prove resistant to the vaccines.
On Sunday, ministers voted on a proposal to reopen Ben-Gurion Airport on February 20, but capping the number of people permitted to enter the country per day at 2,000. While they backed the proposal in principle, the specific regulations on air travel have reportedly yet to be approved. The rules did not specify whether the regulations apply only to Israelis or also to non-citizens.
According to the Ynet news site, those entering the country starting Saturday will likely be forced to self-isolate in state-run quarantine hotels, unless they’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19.
Under the agreement, airlines other than Israel’s national carrier El Al will also be granted permission by the Transportation Ministry to fly to Tel Aviv, according to the statement.
That change came after the US Department of Transportation demanded that Israel allow US airlines to fly rescue flights for stranded Israelis, warning it would otherwise prevent El Al flights from landing in the United States, according to Channel 12. According to the report, the US cautioned that current Israeli policy, which allows only Israeli airlines to fly the routes, is against aviation agreements between the nations.
The report said that a message had been sent from the Biden administration to Jerusalem saying that American planes should be allowed to fly the routes, in addition to Israeli carriers, to prevent a potential crisis between the two countries.
Israel feared the UK would threaten similar sanctions, according to the report.
The government has been increasing its precautionary measures in recent weeks in order to prevent a widespread outbreak of the highly contagious British and South African variants of the coronavirus.
Citizens who left the country before January 25 and have since been stranded abroad are allowed to return to the country but are immediately taken to quarantine hotels upon arrival. They remain there for two weeks, or ten days if they test negative twice within a set number of days.
However, the number of flights, currently operated by El Al, is limited and they only flies a few select routes.
The Health Ministry earlier on Sunday announced that 14 new cases of the highly contagious South African coronavirus variant have been found in Israel, including one case of reinfection of an individual who had already previously been diagnosed with the virus. In total, 44 cases of the South African mutation of the virus have now been diagnosed in Israel.
Ministers in the coronavirus cabinet also debated Sunday whether to reopen wide swaths of the economy before the February 23 date previously agreed upon. The meeting ended with no decisions made.
Recent days have seen a slow but consistent decline in daily new coronavirus infections in Israel, as the effects of the lengthy lockdown and the vaccination campaign are felt.
Addressing the ministers on Sunday, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash expressed “cautious optimism” about the infection rates, though he said the number of seriously ill was dropping at a slower pace than anticipated.
“There is a drop in morbidity, but looking ahead, we must be careful not to reopen irresponsibly, which will cause infections to rise,” said Ash, according to Army Radio.
Ash said he was “very, very troubled” by the prospect of mass violations over the upcoming Purim holiday later this month, with health officials set to recommend a nighttime curfew during the festival to prevent gatherings at synagogues and parties.
Ash was also pushing for legislation that would require all workers who have high exposure to the public, including teachers, to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. The bill would apply to, among others, teachers, transportation drivers, and those who work in medical clinics, according to the reports.
Those who refuse to be vaccinated will be required to have a virus test every two days. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein last week said that workers may be required to pay for the tests from their own pocket.
According to Health Ministry figures Sunday morning, Israel recorded 1,869 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, out of 24,732 tests performed. Testing rates consistently plunge over the weekends. Meanwhile, 1,008 patients were listed in serious condition, including 284 who were on ventilators. The death toll climbed to 5,368 as of Sunday morning, according to ministry figures.
However, according to figures released by the Military Intelligence task force, Israel’s R-value, the reproduction number of the virus that measures transmission, dropped from 1.0 last week to 0.85. The number of serious patients was also on the decline, the task force reported, with the number down 125 since last week, when there were 1,133 patients in serious condition.
But the data also showed a noticeable increase in serious cases among those under 60, who this week constituted about 40% of all serious patients. At the same time, there is a clear decline in the rate of severe morbidity among those 60 and over.
While over 3.8 million Israelis have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with 2.4 million getting both doses, the figures also show that the drive has slowed across all age groups but particularly among those 60 and over, 10% of whom have not yet been vaccinated.