Israelis went about without masks on Sunday after the order to wear them outdoors was rescinded in another step towards relative normality thanks to the country’s mass-vaccination against COVID-19.
With about 81% of citizens or residents over 16 – the age group eligible for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Israel – having received both doses, cases of infection and hospitalizations are down sharply.
“We are leading the world right now when it comes to emerging from the coronavirus,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told reporters. “(But) we have still not finished with the coronavirus. It can return.”
The Health Ministry said on Sunday that it had detected seven cases of a new Indian variant in Israel, whose potency was being assessed.
The police-enforced wearing of protective masks outdoors, ordered a year ago for non-exercise activities, was scrapped. But the Health Ministry said the requirement still applied for indoor public spaces and urged citizens to keep masks to hand.
“Breathing Freely,” read the cover headline of the mass-circulation daily Israel Hayom.
“Being without a mask for the first time in a long time feels weird. But it’s a very good weird,” Amitai Hallgarten, 19, said while sunning himself at a park. “If I need to be masked indoors to finish with this – I’ll do everything I can.”
With Israeli kindergarteners, elementary and high school students already back in class, middle school pupils who had been kept at home or attended class sporadically returned to pre-pandemic schedules.
Teachers were instructed to continue ventilating classrooms and to maintain social distancing in lessons and breaks. Extra-curricular activities such as children’s theaters remain off-limits.
“This is still a non-vaccinated population (children under the age of 16) that we want to safeguard,” Health Ministry official Sharon Alroy-Preis told Israel’s Army Radio.
Some Israelis, however, confessed hesitancy about going outside without face masks.
“I’m Tunisian, and I came here from France ten years ago. I really feel fine, like I’m in heaven,” David, a Tunisian-born immigrant from France who is continuing to wear a mask even outdoors, told Arutz Sheva.
In France, he said, “the virus is a real mess. A real pandemic. Here, we’ve enjoyed a real gift from G-d. I’m so happy.”
Asher, a native of Yerushalayim, explained why he was still masking outdoors:
“I don’t intend to take off the mask completely. Why? Because there’s smoke and gas in the street and all kinds of other smells in different places. So I prefer to keep the mask on. Not that it is required, but I want to keep it. And we got used to it.”
Another person said: “There is a feeling of freedom – the weather is nice and warm and it’s nice to go without a mask, but I’m still careful.”
“There’s another mutation that’s here, right?”