Israel reimposes indoor mask requirement as daily cases top 200

Renewed mandate comes into force at noon on Friday; virus czar warns the spread of COVID is accelerating, but stresses the number of seriously ill patients remains low

Israelis, some wearing masks, shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis, some wearing masks, shop at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel on Friday reimposed an indoor mask requirement as over 200 new COVID-19 cases were recorded the day before, the highest daily caseload in two and a half months, with a top health official warning the spread of the coronavirus was accelerating.

The Health Ministry said the renewed mandate took effect at noon in all enclosed spaces — except for permanent places of residence — a day after coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said it would be reinstated early next week amid a recent resurgence in cases. The mandate was lifted last week.

A Health Ministry statement said those exempt from the requirement were children under seven, people with disabilities that prevent them from wearing a mask, anyone alone in an enclosed space, two workers who work regularly together in the same room, and anyone exercising.

The ministry called on Israelis to wear face coverings when taking place in mass gatherings outdoors, such as the gay pride parade in Tel Aviv scheduled for Friday. It also urged those in at-risk groups or who are not vaccinated to avoid gatherings.

The move came shortly after Ash said 227 infections were confirmed Thursday, the highest daily figure since April 7. He said the positive test rate ticked up to 0.6 percent, “which also testifies to the increase in morbidity.”

“Another thing that is bothersome is that the morbidity is spreading to additional communities,” Ash told Kan public radio.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash at a press conference in Jerusalem on June 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ash stressed, however, that he does not believe Israel is facing another major wave of infections and said he hoped that the high number of those vaccinated would prevent hospitalizations and serious illness. He noted that while case numbers have been on the rise, the number of seriously ill patients remained low.

He also said that in retrospect, it may have been better to not lift the mask mandate on June 15, though he was not certain that would have prevented the current uptick in infections.

“It would be preferable if we were with masks all the time but again, I’m not sure we would have made a different decision,” Ash said.

According to Health Ministry data released Friday morning, the number of active cases further rose to 872, while the number of serious cases nationwide remained steady at 26. There have been 840,522 confirmed cases in Israel and 6,429 deaths from the virus since the pandemic began.

The figures showed that the weekly average of daily cases jumped to 130. The government decided earlier this week that the indoor mask mandate would be reimposed if the 7-day average passed 100.

The Health Ministry also downgraded two localities that have seen a surge in infections under its “traffic light” system for ranking municipalities based on the severity of morbidity there. Modiin was changed from “yellow” to “orange” as the number of active cases in the central city continued to rise and the town of Kokhav Yair was changed from “green” to “yellow.”

Binyamina, a northern town near Haifa, on Wednesday was labeled “red,” the first such municipality to be categorized as a high infection area in several months. All other communities in Israel remain “green.”

A young Israeli receives a coronavirus vaccine at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem on June 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Along with restoring the indoor mask rule, a television report on Thursday said Health Ministry officials were planning to push for a return of limits on gatherings if the recent uptick in coronavirus cases does not subside.

Israel lifted its indoor mask mandate on June 15, but the mayors of Modiin and Binyamina reimposed the mandate in schools in the two cities after local outbreaks. Kfar Saba also reinstated masks in schools on Tuesday, after several positive COVID cases among students.

The fast-spreading Delta variant that was first detected in India is believed to be responsible for 70% of the new cases in the country in recent weeks.

On Monday, the Health Ministry said it would begin a greater push to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds and officially recommended that they do so. While that particular age group has been eligible for several weeks, the ministry stopped short of issuing an official recommendation until Monday, and the number of vaccinations among teenagers in general has remained low.

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