Restaurants, pubs, hotels, pools and other establishments began opening up and hosting patrons Wednesday morning, hours after authorities gave the go ahead to ease pandemic restrictions and allow some of the last businesses remaining shut amid coronavirus to reopen.
On Tuesday night, the government announced it had given final approval to the businesses to reopen, two months after they were shut in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. Most other locations, including schools, malls, gyms, beaches and other types of stores have already been allowed to reopen as daily infection totals have slimmed to a few dozen or less.
Despite the green light, many bars and restaurants are expected to stay shut due to financial hardships and hygiene and distancing guidelines that could make it difficult to recoup losses.
Overall, Israel’s jobless rate rose from less than 4 percent to over 25 percent during the crisis, with over 1 million members of the workforce jobless. Though that number is now falling back, Labor and Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuly said Wednesday he anticipates that 400,000 people will find they have no jobs to go back to.
The Israeli Restaurants and Bars Association told Channel 13 news that many establishments are in financial difficulties as they were not able to obtain government loans and assistance. According to the association there are around 14,000 restaurants, cafes and bars in the country.
Yet some 4,500 restaurants will remain shuttered, leaving 70,000 employees without work, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday. Each month that the lockdown forced restaurants to remain shut caused losses of half a billion shekels to the hospitality industry, the report said.
Last week, renowned Israeli chef Yuval Ben Neriah, who owns several restaurants in Tel Aviv, told Channel 12 news that health ministry guidelines demanding at least 1.5 meters of distance between tables at eateries would force many eateries down to 50% capacity, making it unprofitable for them to reopen.
Restaurant operators have been clamoring for permission to reopen with some already opening their doors to business, serving customers at outdoor seating in defiance of current lockdown directives.
Until Tuesday’s rollback, pandemic regulations mandated that eateries only prepare food for delivery or takeout.
Under the plan approved by new Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, restaurants, bars and nightclubs that can serve up to 100 patrons may operate at full capacity, while those able to seat more may operate at 85 percent capacity.
Clubs and eateries will also be required to keep to Purple Badge standards, a new government certification for businesses that meet hygiene and social distancing measures due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The ministry said tables must be placed 1.5 meters apart and reservations should be made in advance if possible. Like with other businesses, eateries will be required to take the temperature of all customers.
Those caught violating the rules will face a NIS 2,000 fine ($570).
The government has earmarked NIS 100 billion ($4.4 billion) to restart the economy which came to an almost total standstill during the lockdown.
An NIS 6 billion program is aimed at providing financial incentives for small and medium businesses to rehire workers who lost their jobs during the virus outbreak.
However, the plan, announced Tuesday, incentives waiting until June to open by doubling the amount of money per employee rehired the businesses will get.
The Shavuot holiday will also force most places to shut down again Thursday night.
Museums and tourist attractions, including cable cars and boats, will also be allowed to open as of Wednesday morning, subject to social distancing, wearing of facial masks, hygiene regulations, markings for waiting in lines and limits on the number of guests. Museums will be subject to a limitation of one person for every seven meters and general purple badge guidelines.
Swimming pools will be limited to one person for every 6 meters in the water and one person for every 10 meters outside of the water. Wet saunas and jacuzzis will stay closed but dry saunas will be permitted to open.
Hotels can also open as of Wednesday, subject to the same limitations as restaurants and pools.
Youth movements will also recommence operations Wednesday.
Not included in Tuesday’s announcement were dance clubs that will, for the time being remain closed. Restrictions banning sitting at tables in shopping mall food courts will continue to apply.
Some businesses, such as event halls, concert halls, theaters and other venues are only slated to be allowed to reopen on June 14, with a maximal 75% capacity. However, a government proposal could see open-air events with up to 500 attendees okayed before then, according to Channel 12 news.
Israeli professional soccer is set to resume this weekend, but with games played in stadiums without crowds.
Estimates are that Israel’s international airport will not resume significant activity before July.
At the height of the virus, almost all businesses and public places were shut and most people were banned from going more than 100 meters from their homes.
Edelstein called the decision to roll back restrictions Tuesday “a holiday gift.” He highlighted the fact that synagogues would now be allowed to host up to 70 people.
Synagogues were found to be a major incubator for the virus at the start of the outbreak, but the government has faced intense pressure to reopen houses of worship and allow them to host regular services.
Israel has seen the spread of the virus mostly stalled, which it has credited to strict lockdown rules imposed in March and April. According to the Health Ministry, figures, the number of active cases has dropped to 2,019, and only two deaths from the virus have been recorded in the last week.
The country has gradually eased restriction over the past month as the number of new daily infections has dropped to around two dozen a day. However, officials have expressed fears of a second wave, and there have been reports of localized outbreaks centered around reopened schools.