Ministers expected to lift more restrictions as virus rates continue to slide

Ministers are expected Wednesday to approve a further easing of coronavirus lockdown measures, increasing the number of people allowed to gather in public and removing the requirement for some students to study in small groups at schools.

With the current restrictions set to expire at midnight, the coronavirus cabinet, a panel that sets policy for dealing with COVID-19, will hold a vote by telephone in the evening on newly eased measures proposed by the Health Ministry.

The new measures, expected to be effective as of Thursday, include raising the number of people allowed to gather outdoors from 50 to 100, according to Hebrew media reports. The current limit of 20 people indoors is expected to remain in place.

Cultural venues are also expected to be allowed to host up to 750 people under the Green Pass program, up from the current limit of 500.

The Green Pass is given to those who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus, granting them entry to public venues not open to others.

People enjoy artist Ivri Lider at a concert organized by the Tel Aviv municipality at Bloomfield Stadium, March 5, 2021 (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

Israel in recent months has significantly rolled back coronavirus restrictions by opening businesses, event venues and other activities, as morbidity levels have dropped amid the country’s world-leading vaccination drive.

Additionally, ministers will reportedly vote on Wednesday on lifting the requirements for some students to learn in “pods.”

The pod system, which limits the number of students who can study together, is to be canceled for classes in grades 11-12 where there is a vaccination rate of more than 65 percent of students, down from the current requirement of 90%, Haaretz reported. It will also be canceled for all schools taking part in the “Education Shield” program, which requires students to undergo weekly coronavirus tests.

The move will ease the pressure on schools to provide separate classrooms for each group, allowing other students still learning partially from home to return to school more frequently.

But in a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who chairs the Blue and White party, said that the proposed measures did not go far enough, demanding that more students be allowed to go back to school full time.

Despite initial expectations that pods would also be canceled for 4th graders, in addition to 1st to 3rd graders, who returned to school this week without the pod system, ministers were not expected to vote on the move Wednesday.

“Immediate agreements must be reached between the Education Ministry and the Health Ministry on an outline based on the immediate [lifting of the pod requirement] of first-fourth grades for full-time studies, which will maximize teaching power for fifth- and sixth-grades,” Blue and White said in a statement, threatening to allow the current restrictions to expire altogether if its proposal was not considered.

Israeli students go to school in Yad Mordechai, March 07, 2021 (Flash90)

The easing of restrictions comes as infection rates continue to drop both among students and in the wider population.

According to Health Ministry data, on March 10, the infection rate among 1st- to 4th-graders was six per 1,000 children. On April 4, that number had dropped to just 0.5 per 10,000 children.

Recent infection figures show a continued improvement over the past two months, credited chiefly to the successful vaccination campaign. The success comes despite more infectious virus variants proliferating and the gradual lifting of restrictions.

According to the Health Ministry, only 376 new patients were diagnosed on Tuesday, representing a positivity rate of 0.7% out of more than 57,000 tests. The R-rate stood at 0.78, up from a low of 0.63 at the beginning of the week.

The total number of cases in Israel since the start of the pandemic stood at 835,104 with 4,888 active cases. The death toll was 6,261.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis during a briefing in January 2021. (video screenshot)

The ministry said Wednesday that 5,286,023 Israelis had received at least one vaccine dose and 4,878,839 had received both.

Despite the decreased infection rates, the head of public health in the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, said Wednesday that Israel was still “in the midst of a battle” against the pandemic, and warned of the need to remain vigilant.

Speaking to the Ynet news site, Alroy-Preis said there remain “many outside threats that could develop here” — an apparent reference to virus variants that could potentially bypass the protection afforded by vaccines.

And she added that with “over a third of the country still not vaccinated… It’s not behind us, it’s not over.”

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