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Hailing ‘return to normal,’ Israel rescinds virus closures on eateries, bars

Restaurants, bars, hotels and swimming pools are finally being allowed to open on Wednesday after over two months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Health Ministry said Tuesday evening, as the government gave the go ahead to ease restrictions and allow Israelis to go out again.

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.

The Health Ministry said it would publish “purple badge” guidelines for each type of business.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the decision in a celebratory message that marked a stark contrast to somber tones struck two months ago when he announced a series of tightening closures aimed at stopping the spread of the pandemic.

“We want to make your life easier, to allow you to go out and get life back to normal, to have a cup of coffee and to drink a beer,” he said in a video.

Netanyahu added that people should go out and have a good time, but the government would be monitoring developments and respond accordingly. “I hope we won’t have to change the guidelines,” he said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called the decision to roll back restrictions “a holiday gift,” referring to the upcoming Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which begins on Thursday night. He highlighted the fact that synagogues would be allowed to host up to 70 people.

In contrast to Passover and the minor holiday of Lag B’Omer, families will be able to visit each other or go out to parks and other attractions.

The decision came a day after Israel’s death toll went up by two to 281, after five days in which no fatalities were recorded. The number of active cases on Tuesday dropped to 2,019, though 33 people remain on ventilators.

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.

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.

Among other eased restrictions, the government said it was rescinding restrictions on the number of workers who can be in a single room, and said business meetings could host up to 50 people, so long as a two-meter distance is maintained.

The number of people who can be in a car was raised to three.

Restrictions on the number of people allowed in stores will also be eased. As of Wednesday, stores can allow one person for every seven square meters of space up to a limit of 50 people so long as it is possible to maintain a distance of 2 meters between people.

Restaurants and bars had been among the last places to be okayed to be reopened, with owners pushing to be able to return to work. Some eateries had reopened on their own in protest of the rules.

Under the new guidelines, restaurants and bars with a license for 100 persons will be able to open to full capacity, while those with a license for up to 200 people will be allowed to serve up to 85% of their regular capacity.

Restaurants will have to take customers’ temperature before allowing them to enter, tables must be 1.5 meters apart and will have to be disinfected between covers. Servers must wear protective masks and self-service will not be allowed.

Restrictions banning sitting at tables in shopping mall food courts will continue to apply.

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. Museums may also open, subject to a limitation of one person for every seven meters and general purple badge guidelines.

Youth movements will also recommence operations Wednesday.

Some businesses, such as event halls, concert halls, theaters and other venues are only slated to be allowed to reopen on June 14.

However, Israeli citizens and officials have taken an increasingly lax approach to social distancing guidelines. A concert on Tel Aviv’s beachfront last week drew thousands of people as police watched, though restrictions remain in place against such gatherings.

Despite the seeming return to normal, Israel’s borders remain shut to foreigners and those arriving from abroad are still required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Officials do not expect regular commercial air travel to resume until mid-July at earliest.

In a separate announcement, Netanyahu’s office announced that elementary schools will operate until early August after an agreement was reached on a NIS 700 million budgetary allocation to enable the extension of the school year.

Kindergartens and elementary schools up to second grade will operate until July 13 and from then until August 6 will continue to operate as a summer camp. Schools will operate on a regular basis for third and fourth graders up until August 6.

Schools had been shut from March 15, but have gradually returned to full schedules in May.

Places of entertainment are set to reopen in mid-June, with a maximum 75% capacity.

In another sign of returning to normal, the Mossad intelligence agency announced it was ending its participation in the national coronavirus taskforce. The spy agency had been credited with helping Israel secure vital testing equipment and protective gear.

Source: TOI