Israel to scrap outdoor mask mandate from Sunday

Israel to scrap outdoor mask mandate from Sunday
3 min read
Israel announced plans to scrap the mandatory wearing of masks outdoors, citing success in an inoculation drive that has been criticised for dismissing Palestinians under occupation.
Israel has been condemned for dismissing Palestinians in its vaccination drive [Getty]
Israelis will no longer have to wear masks outdoors starting from Sunday as the number of virus infections plummets, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said.

"The rate of infection in Israel is very low thanks to the successful vaccine campaign in Israel, and therefore it is possible to ease (restrictions)," Edelstein said in a statement Thursday.

He said however that masks will still be required indoors.

With close to five million people - more than half the population of 9.3 million - vaccinated, Israel continues its world-beating campaign that sent coronavirus infection rates down.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu obtained millions of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines in part by agreeing to share with Pfizer medical data on the product's impact.

The vaccines have transformed life in Israel. In mid-January the country had a peak of some 10,000 new infections a day but the rate is now about 200 cases a day.

The rate of new infections has remained low even after in-person learning resumed and restrictions were loosened on bars, restaurants and indoor gatherings.

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was a guest of honour at a government ceremony Wednesday evening marking Israel's 73rd year of independence. 

"Together we are demonstrating that through mass vaccinations we can defeat the Covid-19 pandemic and save lives," Bourla said in a video address.

Throughout the festivities marking independence day, thousands of people held barbecues, lounged on beaches and celebrated at parties, often without masks.

On Wednesday, Israel announced a plan to allow vaccinated foreign tourists to return in groups beginning May 23, more than a year after closing its borders to most tourists to prevent the spread of the virus.

Israel's easing of restrictions stands in contrast to the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip, where infection rates remain high and vaccinations are low.

Gaza has seen a recent spike in Covid-19 cases where 65,500 people have been infected and 610 deaths recorded since the start of the pandemic.

In the West Bank, more than 175,000 people have been infected and 2,004 deaths have been recorded.

"The epidemiological situation in the Gaza Strip is dangerous," said Magdy Dahir, deputy director of primary care at the Gaza health ministry. "There is a clear increase in hospitalisations."

The Palestinian health ministry announced last month that only 69,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had received one vaccine jab.

Read also: Pfizer suspends Covid-19 vaccine shipments after 'banana republic' Israel fails to pay

Rights groups say Israel must supply vaccines to the 4.8 million Palestinians living there, but Israel says Palestinians must obtain their own shots.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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