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'We want to let loose a little bit and celebrate'

Israelis pack bars and restaurants to ring in New Year despite fresh restrictions

Many young revelers say they are not deterred by rising case numbers, because they are vaccinated and believe Omicron not too harmful

Fireworks explode over Jerusalem's Old City during New Year's Eve celebrations, on December 31, 2021 (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
Fireworks explode over Jerusalem's Old City during New Year's Eve celebrations, on December 31, 2021 (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Israelis packed bars and restaurants across the country on Friday night determined to celebrate the New Year despite rising COVID numbers and fresh restrictions aimed at limiting the revelry.

Many young people said that they were not concerned about the prospect of catching the virus, noting that they were vaccinated and citing the belief that Omicron was not as serious as previous strains.

“I’m vaccinated, so I’m not worried,” Uriel Shiskin told the Ynet news site from a bar in Tel Aviv. “Get vaccinated, go out, live and everything will be OK.”

“Even if we get it will be mild,” said another reveler, identifying himself as Rotem.

Others said they were taking precautions.

“We were a bit worried about going out, but we said we would find an uncrowded place where we could sit outside and not give up on going out,” Neta Ofir, 22, told Ynet. “We want to let loose a little bit and celebrate.”

An Israeli vendor wears a pair of 2022 glasses to advertise a festive accessories store on New Year’s Eve in Tel Aviv, Israel, Friday, Dec. 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Israeli authorities on Thursday imposed new restrictions on gatherings that appeared designed to head off a feared spike in new cases fueled by New Year’s revelers spreading the ultra-contagious Omnicron variant.

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.

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.

However, large outdoor gatherings in Israel to celebrate the New Year are unusual.

Although many Israelis mark the arrival of the New Year, it is a much lower-key event than in Western countries and there is no local equivalent to the dropping of the ball at Times Square or the fantastic fireworks displays in capitals around the world.

Fireworks explode from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, during the New Year’s Eve celebration in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Unlike the Jewish New Year on Rosh Hashanah, in the fall, New Year’s Day is not an official holiday in Israel.

Many Israelis call New Year’s Eve “Sylvester” — a term also used in some European countries, which refers to fourth-century Pope Sylvester I who died on December 31.

Many of Israel’s 1.6 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their decedents traditionally mark “Novy God,” or New Year’s in Russian — a day celebrated beginning December 31 that includes parties and family gatherings.

Like in Israel, concerns over the pandemic limited New Year’s Eve events in major cities across the globe, though others carried on like any other year.

Despite the restrictions, many noted that it was still better than last year, when Israelis marked the New Year under a lockdown with thousands of police fanning out across the country to prevent gatherings.

This year, 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.

This concern over New Year’s Eve parties sparking more cases comes with new data from the Health Ministry Friday morning showing infection rates continuing their rise, with nearly 5,000 new cases diagnosed Thursday.

People line up in a queue at the entrance to a COVID-19 rapid antigen testing center in Jerusalem, on December 30, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The virus’s basic reproduction number — the number of people each case infects, on average — also maintained its upward trajectory, standing at 1.71.

Meanwhile, the number of severe cases remained stable at 93. The majority of seriously ill patients are unvaccinated.

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