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Ministers okay further easing of virus restrictions, boosting events attendance

Coronavirus cabinet approves increasing capacity at sporting, cultural venues; also expected to set rules on gatherings over Passover, Ramadan

Soccer fans cheer during a match between Beitar Jerusalem FC and Ashdod FC at Teddy Kollek stadium in Jerusalem, on March 17, 2021. (Flash90)
Soccer fans cheer during a match between Beitar Jerusalem FC and Ashdod FC at Teddy Kollek stadium in Jerusalem, on March 17, 2021. (Flash90)

Ministers on Thursday evening approved a further easing of coronavirus lockdown measures, increasing attendance at cultural and sporting events and opening up other public activities.

Voting by telephone, ministers in the coronavirus cabinet, a panel that sets policy for dealing with COVID-19, also approved the opening of outdoor fairs and tourist attractions, the Prime Minister’s Office and Health Ministry said in a joint statement.

“This is a significant achievement for the world of culture and for the world of Israeli sports,” said Culture and Sports Minister Chili Tropper.

Other changes included allowing businesses operating according to the Green Pass standard to permit entry for non-vaccinated people who take a rapid virus test at the entrance.

The Green Pass identifies holders as fully vaccinated or as having recovered from the coronavirus, granting them entry to public venues not available to the unvaccinated.

The statement noted the rapid test option does not detract from an existing framework under which hotels can allow entry for minors, who are not eligible for vaccination, if they show a negative result from a virus test taken within the previous 48 hours. Likewise, event halls can permit up to five percent of those present to be unvaccinated, on the condition that they tested negative for the virus in the previous two days.

During the week-long Passover holiday, hotels and event venues will be able to permit entry for unvaccinated people who took a test in the previous 72 hours, the statement said.

In what will be the fourth step of rolling back the lockdown, ministers also approved lifting some restrictions from the education system, raising the number of students allowed to participate in outdoor events organized by kindergartens and schools from 20 to 50.

Teaching staff and outside teachers who have presented their Green Pass to a school principal will no longer be limited in the number of different groups of students they can work with.

People enjoy artist Ivri Lieder at a concert organized by the Tel Aviv municipality at Bloomfield Stadium, March 5, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Youth movement trips, including overnight stays, will be permitted for those aged 16 or older, on the condition that at least 90% of participants have a Green Pass.

The pod system, which limits the number of students who study together, is to be canceled for 3rd graders who will study as a full class, as is already the case for grades 1-2. However, third graders in aftercare will not be permitted to mix with students from other classes.

In areas where schools are operating as usual due to acceptable infection rates, kids’ camps will be permitted during the Passover holiday, according to existing guidelines, the statement said.

Indoor fairs and sporting events are to reopen according to Green Pass guidelines.

Large events are to be divided into two kinds: sit-down affairs where no food is served, such as sporting and cultural events; and stand-up events where food is served, including parties, celebrations and events where participants are moving, such as sports contests.

For indoor seating events where food is not served, venues with a capacity for 5,000 people can host up to 75% of their full occupancy, but no more than 1,000 people.

Venues with seating over 5,000 can host up to 30% of the full capacity, but no more than 3,000 people.

At standing events where food is served, venues can fill to 50% capacity but with no more than 500 people outdoors or 300 indoors.

Fairs will also be permitted inside malls, with stalls socially distanced or separated by screens, the statement said. Only packaged food will be permitted for sale. Outdoor culture events can be held without the need to divide participants into separate areas.

In other steps, saunas will be reopened in gyms and swimming pools. Sports facilities will be opened for registered professional athletes including those who have not competed in events in the past two years, a requirement that was previously in place.

Tourist attractions will be able to operate under the Green Pass system while maintaining 15 square meters of space for each person. Sites that have facilities and a maximum capacity of 10,000 people can host up to 1,500 visitors, and those with a larger capacity can bring in a maximum of 2,500 people. The new rules allow for the operation of sites such as waterparks, the statement said.

Prayer houses with more than 5,000 seats can fill to 30% capacity but no more than 3,000 people.

Smaller prayer houses with fewer than 5,000 seats can host up to 50% of capacity with the maximum at 1,000 people.

In open venues with seating for more than 10,000 people, occupancy can be up to 30%, with a maximum of 5,000 people. Smaller venues, with seating for less than 10,000, can host up to 50% capacity, but no more than 3,000 people.

The PMO said the regulations, which will come into effect on Friday, would be in place until April 4.

Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Chezy Levy speaks during a press conference about the Coronavirus, in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Flash90)

Ministers were also expected to lay down the guidelines for the coming Passover holiday, which begins with the Seder, a festive meal that traditionally sees extended families hold large gatherings together.

Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said at a press briefing ahead of the cabinet meeting that for Seder night up to 20 people will be permitted to sit together indoors, or up to 50 outside.

In addition to the orders for Passover, ministers were also set to decide on the format for the month-long Muslim Ramadan period, which begins this year on April 18.

The question of what rules would be in place over Passover has been a much-talked-about topic as the holiday approached. Last year, in the midst of a rising wave of infections, the country was placed under a strict lockdown for Passover that included a curfew on the Seder night against leaving one’s home.

Though ministers met as virus infection rates continue to drop, previous such meetings to change lockdown policy have occasionally pushed off making a final decision, sometimes until only hours before the new measures go into effect.

Earlier Thursday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein lashed out at the High Court of Justice for the day before striking down restrictions on the entry of Israeli citizens to the country ahead of next week’s elections.

“The High Court ruling is irresponsible and contrary to the public interest,” Edelstein said during a ceremony at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital honoring medical workers.

“I am really beginning to believe that the crisis is behind us, but it is still not worth creating an atmosphere as if it is all over,” he added.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein at the ‘Besheva’ conference in Jerusalem on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, Levy, the director-general, distanced himself from criticism made by one anonymous ministry official who a day earlier told the Ynet website that the ruling was “idiotic” and said the judges “stabbed us in the back.”

“We completely respect the High Court decision,” Levy said during a press briefing and vowed to implement the decision while warning it could create an opening for new virus strains to enter Israel.

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch and national coronavirus czar Nachman Ash have both also condemned the decision, saying it could allow mutated variants of the virus into the country.

The High Court ruled Wednesday that Israel’s restrictions on citizens entering the country are unconstitutional and must end this Saturday. The decision came less than a week before national elections and after almost two months during which Israelis haven’t been allowed to freely fly home.

Passengers arriving on a flight from Frankfurt take part in the pilot program of wearing electrical bracelets upon arrival in Israel for their quarantine period, March 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The justices ruled that the current cap of 3,000 returning citizens per day disproportionately violates civil rights due to its sweeping and extended nature and since the regulations weren’t imposed based on concrete data and information.

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed since January 25, leaving thousands unable to return, in an effort to prevent the potential arrival of coronavirus variants. The country last week eased restrictions on air travel to the country, enabling thousands of citizens to return home.

Under the current rules, special exceptions from the daily quota are being granted to new immigrants who can’t delay their arrival to the country, essential foreign workers, relatives of Israelis who need to visit under extraordinary circumstances, and professional athletes.

In their ruling, Chief Justice Esther Hayut and justices Neal Hendel and Yitzhak Amit said the limitations as a whole “violate the basic constitutional right to enter and exit Israel, and others rights at the core of the democratic fabric of life.”

They ruled that aggravating factors are the proximity to the March 23 elections, the duration in which the restrictions have been in place without respite, the fact that they were imposed without significant prior notice, and the lack of a clearly stated date for their end.

The court added that “the threat of the coronavirus and its different variants isn’t expected to disappear in the foreseeable future, despite the success of the vaccination drive.” It called for a better balance between minimizing the threat of new strains entering the country and violating basic rights.

“Such a balance must enable people to carry on with their daily routines,” it said, while taking into account the lower risk to vaccinated and recovered people.

A High Court of Justice hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, on May 4, 2020. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP)

As morbidity rates steadily decline, Israel has been rolling back virus restrictions which at their peak shuttered the entire education system, public venues and most non-essential businesses. Most of the education system has since reopened, along with much of the economy. Limited audiences have been allowed back to sports and cultural events.

Recent infection figures represent a dramatic improvement over the past two months, credited chiefly to a successful vaccination campaign. The success comes despite the more infectious virus variants proliferating and the gradual lifting of restrictions.

There were 22,028 active reported coronavirus cases in Israel as of Thursday evening, including 1,517 new confirmed infections on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 825,420.

Meanwhile, the number of people in Israel fully vaccinated against COVID-19 continued to climb.

The data showed 5,164,853 people have received at least the first dose of a vaccine and 4,444,913 have received both doses.

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