Gulf Today

Israel lifts public mask mandate, opens schools

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TEL AVIV: Israelis went about barefaced on Sunday ater the order to wear masks outdoors was rescinded in another step towards relative normality thanks to the country’s mass-vaccinatio­n against COVID-19.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, contagions and hospitalis­ations are down sharply.

But entry by foreigners is still limited and non-immune Israelis who return from abroad must self-isolate, due to concern virus variants could challenge the vaccine.

The Health Ministry said it had detected seven cases of a new Indian variant in Israel, whose potency was being assessed.

“We are leading the world right now when it comes to emerging from the coronaviru­s,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters. “(But) we have still not finished with the coronaviru­s. It can return.”

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 atended 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 theatres 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.

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