COVID-19: Mask mandate to be canceled in closed spaces

A mask will still be required in places with high infection potential including hospitals and nursing homes.

A woman wears a protective mask during the coronavirus pandemic (photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)
A woman wears a protective mask during the coronavirus pandemic
(photo credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

Face masks in enclosed spaces will no longer be required, beginning this Saturday at 8 p.m., Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz decided on Wednesday. However, masks will still be required in certain high-risk locations such as hospitals, geriatric homes, and for those who are infected and must go into isolation.

“We have finally learned how to live alongside the coronavirus – without panic, with responsibility and sound judgment,” Bennett and Horowitz said in a joint statement. “The coronavirus has not disappeared, but currently no special restrictions are needed. We are acting as we have been doing since the establishment of this government: safeguarding public health while lifting restrictions whenever possible.”

The Knesset Health Committee must deliberate by May 1 if it is to reverse the government’s decision and restore the mask-wearing requirement. However, such a move is highly unlikely.

“We have not yet overcome COVID-19,” said Prof. Hagai Levine, chairman of the Association of Public Health and Community Medicine. “We are not back in 2019 when the pandemic began. We have passed into a new stage, but we aren’t finished with it. The government decision does not mean the end of the recommendation to wear masks, but only of the requirement.”

Levine, who was infected with the virus for the first time two weeks ago, said he is unlikely to now infect others or become reinfected himself.

 Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“I will continue to be careful,” he said. “When being in contact with family members at high risk, especially if they are not fully vaccinated, one should wear a mask in any case. As I work in a hospital, I am used to wearing a mask. I recommend: don’t throw packages of masks away, as in another month or year there could be another wave. There are still a lot of people found to have been infected among those tested, and too many people who were not vaccinated at all or not fully vaccinated.”

Levine was not happy that Health Ministry public health experts, such as the director-general and the corona project manager, were not asked to offer their explanations for the decision as part of the official announcement.

In the meantime, said Levine, there are still problems with the health system.

“There are not enough doctors and nurses, and the lack of resources continues,” he said. “Schoolrooms continue to be crowded, and public health is not prominent enough in decision-making and in allocations.”

According to the latest statistics, 4,041,000 Israelis have been infected with the virus, 3,940,000 have recovered, and 10,650 have died from its complications.

With the end of the requirement, security guards at stores will return to checking for weapons instead of the highly polluting nose-and-mouth coverings. But a downside is that when winter comes, influenza infections – which almost disappeared during the end of 2020, partially because of the masks – will likely be higher compared with two years ago.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed its rules on mask-wearing in February, with about 70% of Americans no longer required to wear a face-covering indoors.

This week, a federal judge in Florida struck down the mask requirement on public transportation, including on planes, leaving it up to individual airlines and local transit agencies to decide what to do. The court decision was not based on health considerations but on procedural matters. The country’s largest airlines quickly canceled their mask requirements for domestic flights, and the Amtrak rail system followed suit.