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Israelis no longer required to wear masks outside starting Sunday, as COVID ebbs

As Independence Day comes to an end, health minister’s announcement of latest milestone in beating back the pandemic gives country another cause to celebrate

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 17, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on March 17, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a further sign that Israel is beating back the COVID-19 pandemic, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein declared Thursday that starting on Sunday, Israelis will no longer be required to wear masks while outside.

In a statement as the country’s Independence Day celebrations were coming to an end, Edelstein said he had instructed ministry director-general Chezy Levy to sign a decree ending the health regulation as of Sunday, after consulting with ministry professionals

Masks will still be required in closed public spaces.

“The masks are intended to protect us from the coronavirus,” Edelstein said. “After professionals decided this was no longer required in open spaces, I decided to enable taking them off.”

He credited Israel’s successful vaccination campaign but called for ongoing vigilance inside.

Health professionals had for weeks been saying the mask mandate outside would likely end soon, but actually reaching the milestone will doubtless be a moving moment for many Israelis, who over the past year have become accustomed to seeing little more than each others’ eyes while out on the streets.

Jerusalemites wearing face masks walk in the city center on February 07, 2021, as Israel exits a 3rd lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier this month, Levy was still skeptical and cautioned against lifting the mandate, arguing the use of masks outdoors was effective in curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Media reports in recent weeks indicated that police had at any rate been instructed to stop enforcing the outdoor mask mandate, with the focus instead on enforcement against those who violate quarantine rules.

After suffering a severe third wave of the pandemic, Israel’s situation has rapidly improved in recent months as it has carried out the world’s fastest per capita vaccination drive. Over half of the population is fully inoculated against the virus, and the results have shown, with daily new cases and serious cases dropping to levels not seen in long months.

As the caseload has dropped, Israel has significantly rolled back coronavirus restrictions by opening businesses, event venues and other activities.

A top expert on the pandemic said on Sunday that Israel may have reached “a sort of herd immunity” and could safely ease further restrictions. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, told Channel 12 that with most Israelis immunized, even the reopening of swaths of the economy and gatherings over the Purim and Passover holidays had not contributed to a spike in cases.

A young Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a Clalit vaccination center in Holon, February 4, 2021. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

Also this week cabinet ministers voted to fully reopen Israeli schools starting Sunday, ending the requirement that some grades still learn in smaller class sizes. Children in grades 5-9 had been the only remaining students required to study in socially distanced “capsules,” or pods.

According to the latest Health Ministry figures released Thursday evening, 196 new coronavirus cases were recorded Wednesday and another 91 since midnight, with 836,706 total infections confirmed since the pandemic began.

The death toll stood at 6,314.

There were 2,945 active cases, including 209 patients in serious condition, 126 of whom were on ventilators.

Of the 55,470 tests performed Wednesday, 0.4% came back positive.

The ministry also said 5,338,967 Israelis have received at least one coronavirus vaccine dose and 4,961,238 have received two shots.

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