Travelers entering Israel allowed to skip COVID tests after airport overwhelmed

Ministry temporarily suspends rules for some as testing stations unable to keep up with influx of passengers ahead of Shabbat

Illustrative: People wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion International Airport on March 8, 2021. (Flash90)
Illustrative: People wait in line to be tested for COVID-19 at Ben Gurion International Airport on March 8, 2021. (Flash90)

The Health Ministry temporarily suspended a requirement for travelers entering Israel to be tested for the coronavirus upon arrival, responding to crowded conditions at the airport as a bottleneck formed around passengers waiting to be swabbed.

Only those who have been vaccinated and are not arriving from countries deemed high-infection zones by Israeli authorities were allowed to skip the testing requirement, the ministry said according to Hebrew media reports. Normally, all travelers entering the country must be tested and quarantine until results are available.

The ministry eased the testing rule after reports of massive crowding at the airport due to a large number of travelers arriving on Friday, without enough testers available to take swabs from them. At least 1,000 people entered without being tested, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Video showed hundreds of people in crowded lines in a wing of the airport set up to accommodate testing with some lines stretching through the arrivals hall.

Those arriving from countries deemed high-risk — Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, India, Mexico and Russia — were not allowed to skip the requirement even if vaccinated, according to the reports.

In a statement carried by Channel 12 news, the Health Ministry said the looming start of Shabbat, which begins at sundown and when many observant Jews refrain from using motorized transport, had factored into the decision. According to the report, officials feared the lines would be more dangerous than allowing people to skip testing.

“Extra staff have been called to open more testing stands. At the start of next week the number of testing stations and staff will be increased,” the ministry said.

It was not clear how long the temporary directive would remain in place, though Channel 12 reported that the airport went back to testing by 8 p.m.

The channel noted that the company contracted to provide tests at the airport had recently changed.

Travel to and from Israel has picked up in recent weeks as the country has seemingly emerged from the coronavirus crisis and opened back up. On June 10, over 22,500 people passed through the airport, the highest number recorded since before the pandemic.

However, passengers entering the country continue to make up a large portion of new cases. Over a third of new cases recorded between Sunday and Tuesday were travelers from overseas, the ministry said Wednesday.

Currently, only Israelis and foreigners on organized trips are allowed in without special permission, though the Health Ministry indicated earlier this month it could soon ease restrictions and begin allowing regular tourists in next month.

Travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

According to Kan, some 250,000 people entered Israel in May, double the number from the year before, though some 50 percent of those requiring quarantine broke those rules.

A national inoculation drive has already seen over half the Israeli population vaccinated against COVID-19 and brought down daily caseloads from the thousands seen at the beginning of the year to just 25 people diagnosed on Thursday.

Health Ministry data published Friday showed there are just 238 active virus patients in the country. Since the start of the outbreak early last year 839,769 people were diagnosed with COVID-19 in Israel and 6,427 are known to have died of the disease.

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