Israel Starts Reopening as COVID-Vaccinated Population Nears 50%

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -
A man stands in front of a store shuttered due to coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, at a mall in Petach Tikvah, Feb. 11. (Reuters/Corinna Kern)

Israel reopened swathes of its economy on Sunday, with the government saying the start of a return to routine was enabled by a COVID-19 vaccination drive that has reached almost half the population.

Shops were open to all. But access to leisure sites like gyms and hotels was limited to people who have had both doses of the vaccine more than a week prior, or recovered from the disease with presumed immunity. Those people get “Green Pass” status from the Health Ministry.

Mask-wearing and social distancing were still in force. Dancing was barred at banquet halls. Shuls were required to halve their normal congregation sizes.

Coming exactly a year after Israel‘s first documented coronavirus case, Sunday’s easing of curbs was part of a government plan to open the economy more widely next month, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is up for reelection.

“We are the first country in the world that is reviving itself thanks to the millions of vaccines we brought in,” he posted. “Vaccinated? Get the Green Pass and get back to regular life.”

Israel has administered at least one dose of the Pfizer Inc vaccine to more than 46% of its nine million population, the Health Ministry says. The risk of illness from COVID-19 dropped 95.8% among people who received both shots of the vaccine, the Health Ministry said on Saturday.

The country has logged more than 740,000 cases and 5,500 deaths from the illness, prompting criticism of the Netanyahu government’s sometimes patchy enforcement of three national lockdowns. It has pledged that there will not be a fourth.

But Nachman Ash, a physician in charge of the country’s pandemic response, told Army Radio that another lockdown “is still possible… Half of the population is still not immune.”

Elementary schoolchildren and pupils in the last two years of high school attended classes on Sunday in Israeli towns found to have contagion rates under control. Middle schoolers are due back by next month, after almost a year of remote learning.