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Israel eases rules on gatherings, but middle schools, airport to stay closed

Israel further eased its coronavirus lockdown on Friday, with synagogues allowed to reopen and rules on gatherings made less stringent, but other restrictions remained firmly in place as the country continued to cautiously step out of its third nationwide lockdown.

Synagogues and other houses of worship were permitted to reopen on Friday morning, with attendance limited to 10 people indoors and 20 outside, ahead of the Purim holiday next week.

The rules for other gatherings were similarly relaxed, with outdoor gatherings of up to 20 people, and indoor groups of up to 10 allowed. The previous rules restricted outdoor gatherings to 10 people and indoors to five.

A strict nationwide lockdown was imposed on December 27 and extended four times to combat the infection rate. Thousands have continued to get infected daily despite the lockdown and Israel’s world-leading vaccination campaign, with officials blaming more infectious virus variants for the caseload.

Ministers decided Thursday to keep Israel’s border crossings and middle schools closed in light of the infection rate.

A joint statement from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry said the country’s airport and land borders will remain closed for 14 more days, until March 6, except for urgent reasons.

Israel had suspended international flights on January 24, shortly before also closing its border crossings with Jordan and Egypt.

However, the Immigration Ministry said Thursday that six special flights were still authorized to land, carrying some 900 immigrants from Ethiopia, France, Russia, Ukraine and South America.

The new arrivals will be subject to quarantine upon arrival, the ministry said in a statement.

Ministers ruled on Thursday that children in grades 7-10 will remain at home, likely for another two weeks, due to fears of the British virus strain, which is believed to be circulating widely among Israeli youth.

Other grades have resumed classes in low infection areas.

“In light of the relatively wide opening of the economy, which may bring about an increase in morbidity, and due to fears of the British mutation, it was decided at this stage to adopt a cautious approach,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the decision. “The cost of a mistake is very great.”

The move came despite fierce pressure from parent groups, including boycotts of Zoom lessons.

Netanyahu led the meeting on the possibility of reopening middle schools. Also in on the call were Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Education Minister Yoav Gallant and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.

The Health Ministry opposed allowing middle schoolers back to class, while Gallant supported the move, and Gantz proposed allowing students back in limited numbers or in small set groups, according to the Ynet news site.

Schools were closed around the country for over a month under lockdown rules, before their partial reopening last week.

Under the Health Ministry plan approved last week, kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 have opened in cities designated as “green” and “yellow” in the government’s color-coding system for morbidity rates.

The Education Ministry on Thursday released a list of restrictions and requirements for educational institutions planning on holding events ahead of Purim.

Infection among children and school reopenings are a central concern during Israel’s third-wave virus outbreak. Children represent a larger proportion of infections than earlier in the pandemic, possibly due to the new virus variants and the fact that a significant percentage of adults have been vaccinated.

A Tuesday poll found that despite a sharp increase in infections among children, only 41 percent of Israeli parents said they intend to vaccinate their kids once inoculations become available for those under 16.

The poll, conducted by the Rushinek research institute, found that 29% of parents don’t plan on vaccinating their 6- to 15-year-olds, 30% are unsure, and 41% plan to do so, Channel 13 reported.

No serious side effects were registered among dozens of children under the age of 16 who suffer specific COVID-19 risk factors and whom Israel has vaccinated against the virus.

Cabinet ministers on Monday approved the reopening of stores, gyms, hotels, and other venues starting Sunday, in a major easing of the sweeping lockdown measures.

Street-front shops, malls, markets, museums, and libraries will be open to all Israelis. But only those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 will be able to use gyms and pools, attend sporting and culture events, and stay at hotels.

The Health Ministry on Thursday launched the long-awaited “Green Pass” certificate which will enable those vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus to take part in various activities. At the same time, the ministry warned of serious legal penalties for those who falsify the passes.

Over 4.2 million Israelis have received their first vaccine dose, and over 2.8 million have gotten both shots, in a population of 9 million.

Around 3 million Israelis are not currently eligible to be vaccinated, including those younger than 16 and people who have recovered from COVID-19, among others.

The Health Ministry said Thursday night there were 48,014 active virus “cases”, including 4,086 infections diagnosed on Wednesday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 741,934. The test positivity rate on Wednesday was 6.6%.

There were 903 serious “cases”, including 297 people on ventilators. The death toll stood at 5,509.

Source: TOI