New limitations on shopping, schools take force as Omicron spreads

Rules effective for 9 days limit crowding at malls, allow only Green Pass holders to enter larger stores; some schools in high-infection areas to hold distance learning

People at a shopping mall in Jerusalem on December 16, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People at a shopping mall in Jerusalem on December 16, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

New restrictions on shopping malls and large stores came into effect Monday morning for a period of nine days, as coronavirus cases continued to rise with the spread of the Omicron variant in Israel.

The new rules, approved Sunday evening by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, limit capacity at malls to one person per 15 square meters.

Green Pass rules — limiting entry only to those who have been vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, or tested negative in the past 72 hours — will be applied to customers and employees in all stores bigger than 100 square meters in either indoor or open-air malls, except for places that provide essential services.

Essential shops include stores selling hygiene products, optical products and medical aid products, as well as supermarkets and grocery stores. Those places will continue limiting capacity to one person per seven square meters.

Green Pass rules will also apply to restaurants in malls. Food stalls in malls will only allow takeout, and only to those with a Green Pass.

In the education system, grades 7-12 will study remotely in “red” (high-infection) communities where less than 70% of students in classes are vaccinated. Primary schools in such communities will seek to reduce contact between students.

An Israeli health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to a student at the al-Manahel School in the village of Majdal Shams on December 12, 2021. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

Sunday saw the test positivity rate for COVID-19 rise above two percent, according to Health Ministry figures released Sunday, which also showed the virus transmission rate at a level not seen in Israel for nearly six months.

Of the 44,538 virus tests carried out Saturday, 2.07% returned positive. The last time the rate was above 2% was on October 7 when 2.14% of tests were positive.

Government and health officials have warned that the highly infectious Omicron variant is pushing the country’s fifth wave of infections, with case numbers expected to rapidly rise in the coming weeks.

The reproductive rate, or “R” number, also continued its gradual rise, hitting 1.41 after having been at 1.02 in early December. The transmission rate is based on data from 10 days earlier and any value above 1 shows that the rate of infection is growing. It was last at such a high level when it was given on July 10, as 1.42 in the midst of Israel’s fourth wave of infections from the Delta strain of the coronavirus.

The number of seriously ill patients continued to steadily climb, reaching 98 to match the level of two weeks ago. Of those, 45 people are in critical condition, 18 are on ECMO machines and 39 are on ventilators.

Hospital workers wearing safety work in the coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on October 14, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Despite the negative developments, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said Sunday evening that Israel would soon remove many restrictions on airline travel to and from the country that were imposed to slow the new strain’s arrival.

“The moment infections are spreading, there is no point in stopping entry from abroad,” Horowitz told Kan news. “The opening of [Israel’s] skies won’t take much time, possibly next week.”

Earlier Sunday, a panel of experts advising the government called for scrapping the list of countries to which Israelis are barred from traveling. The experts said that in two weeks, Omicron infections would surpass Delta cases in most of the world, rendering obsolete the list of so-called “red” countries with high infection rates.

In his interview Sunday, Horowitz also said that the Health Ministry and the government were discussing the option of canceling the current mandatory quarantine for vaccinated individuals who come into contact with a confirmed Omicron patient.

Both Kan and Channel 12 news cited health experts anticipating that if the current rules on the matter remain in place, hundreds of thousands of Israelis will be isolating within a few weeks, amounting to an “effective lockdown.”

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