COVID-19: Israel's mall restrictions go into effect

Entrance into any store larger than 100 square meters will now require a Green Pass, including for employees of these stores.

 Closed down shops at the Azrieli shopping mall  on December 27, 2020, as Israel enters its 3rd nationawide lockdown, in an effort to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Closed down shops at the Azrieli shopping mall on December 27, 2020, as Israel enters its 3rd nationawide lockdown, in an effort to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Shoppers are required to show their Green Passes in any store larger than 100 square meters beginning Monday, after the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee approved the government’s plan – but only for the next nine days.

The decision was made as the number of cases in the country continues to climb, especially among children, the prime minister’s daughter tested positive for the virus, and Israel approved a drug that could help stop serious infection.

The Knesset approved the government’s outline for malls and indoor shopping areas.

Specifically, entrance into any store larger than 100 square meters will now require a Green Pass, including for employees of these stores.

In general, malls will operate according to a strict Purple Ribbon outline, which means that occupancy can be one person for every 15 square meters in the larger shopping center. Stores that sell essential items, such as pharmacies and grocery stores, will adhere to this outline and no Green Pass will be required.

APPOINTEE GILAD KARIV leads the  committee in the Knesset, July 5. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)APPOINTEE GILAD KARIV leads the committee in the Knesset, July 5. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

However, Green Passes will need to be presented to enter food courts and restaurants. At food courts, only takeaway will be permitted.

The rules will only be in effect for nine days while Israel learns more about the nature of the Omicron wave, committee chairman Gilad Kariv (Labor) said. The government had asked that the rules be in place for two weeks.

Kariv said he was voting with a “heavy heart” and that he did not want the Green Pass inside malls to become “the new standard.”

Enforcement will only begin in full force on Tuesday, after the malls and the public have time to prepare.

Meanwhile, COVID cases are rising.

Some 2.16% of people screened for COVID over Shabbat tested positive – the highest percentage since October.

In total, 801 people were diagnosed on Saturday, out of about 40,000 tests, the Health Ministry reported Sunday night.

For perspective, a total of 9,020 new cases were identified last week, and 4,885 the week before, meaning there was a nearly 85% increase in new daily cases between two weeks ago and last week, and the numbers are continuing to rise.

The reproduction rate, or “R” number, has hit 1.41 and is expected to go up. An R over one means that the virus is spreading.

Already, there are 1,118 people identified as carrying the Omicron variant and another 861 who are highly suspicious of being infected with the strain, according to an update released by the Health Ministry on Saturday night.

“In the last 10 days, the number of verified Omicron cases has jumped from about 20 per day to 450,” Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot who advises the government, said in an interview with Ynet on Sunday. “This is an increase of more than 20 times in 10 days.”

“I estimate that within a week we will see thousands of Omicron cases, and within two weeks we will surpass the peak of 10,000 daily cases that we saw at the beginning of the pandemic,” he said.

Nearly half (48%) of the cases are individuals under the age of 18. The majority of cases are in the general community (73%), while 14% are from within the Arab community and 10% from within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community.

Many fully vaccinated people are contracting the virus.

The latest data show that nearly a third (32%) of new daily cases are fully vaccinated, while 47% were unvaccinated and 9% were vaccinated twice more than six months ago and their jabs expired.

Despite so many cases among the young, the number of serious cases is on the rise. There were 98 serious patients on Sunday morning, though that number was 91 by evening. Among them, 39 were intubated.

According to Health Ministry data, more than 80% of the patients in severe condition were unvaccinated. When looking at infected people over the age of 67, more than 95% have never taken a vaccine.

In total, there were 145 people in the hospital with COVID-19 Sunday night, including an increasing number of pregnant women and children, the Health Ministry reported.

There were 10 pregnant women in the hospital as of Friday morning, including two who were in critical condition on Sunday morning. There were nine children, including one in critical condition.

One of the children who tested positive on Sunday was Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s daughter.

Bennett was informed of his daughter’s positive test while at the weekly cabinet meeting in the Golan Heights. He left the meeting to enter home isolation.

Later, a PCR test he took showed him negative for the virus, but the prime minister said he would stay in isolation as a precaution.

Bennett’s daughter, 14, was fully vaccinated.

The prime minister, like all of the ministers who attended the cabinet meeting, had been screened with an antigen test in the morning. He also tested negative then.

However, one of Bennett’s staffers tested positive for the virus. The employee was transferred to quarantine immediately. She had not been in contact with the prime minister or other ministers, Bennett’s office said.

Other employees who did come into contact with her were tested. They all received negative results, but in an effort to take extra precaution, they did not attend the cabinet meeting.

In addition, Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton’s daughter tested positive for COVID. Shasha-Biton did not attend the cabinet meeting on Sunday as a result.

Her office said she was in isolation and would also stay there until a negative PCR test result was obtained.

This is not the first time that Bennett has been in isolation since the start of the Omicron wave in Israel. A person was found COVID-positive on his flight back from the United Arab Emirates earlier this month, putting him and his entourage into isolation.

Cases are especially high among children.

On Sunday morning, the Health Ministry reported more than 5,200 schoolchildren were infected with the virus. In total, 48% of all cases were among people under the age of 18.

COVID outbreaks have been identified in schools in Ma’aleh Adumim (a “red” city), Rishon Lezion (also red), Jerusalem, Petah Tikva and others.

On Monday, the new school outline goes into effect. This means that students in middle and high schools in orange or red areas could have to learn from home if 70% of their classmates are not vaccinated.

The alternative is to learn outside in open spaces, though weather in Israel this time of year does not really permit that.

Grades one through six in red and orange cities will run under a policy of “reducing contact.”

On Monday, the Knesset Education Committee, chaired by MK Sharren Haskel (New Hope), will discuss the outline. It is not expected to pass in its current form.

Over the weekend, researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem warned the government that 4% of severe cases could be children under the age of 12 by late January, assuming vaccination rates continue at their current pace.

According to Public Health Services head Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, who spoke at a meeting of the committee of experts advising the Health Ministry on the coronavirus pandemic last week, Israel is seeing an increase in morbidity specifically in the 12- to15-year-old cohort, “probably mainly infection with the Delta variant and probably due to the decline of the booster.”

Reports are coming out of New York and South Africa regarding a jump in hospitalizations among children, she said.

To help ward off serious infection, Israel has purchased tens of thousands of doses of Pfizer’s Paxlovid, the company’s oral medication to treat COVID-19.

The Health Ministry gave the drug emergency authorization Sunday evening. The doses are expected to arrive in Israel as early as Wednesday.

Paxlovid, which received approval by the US Food and Drug Administration last week, is the world’s first at-home treatment for the virus. It inhibits the activity of the protease enzyme, which is necessary in the process of replication of the virus in the body.

The drug, administered as tablets, is meant to be taken by patients in mild to moderate condition within the first three days of the onset of symptoms. Treatment is once every 12 hours for five days.

Paxlovid received FDA approval after showing in a Phase II/III clinical trial that it reduces severe disease, hospitalization and death by 89% when patients are treated early.

According to Pfizer’s data, the effectiveness of the pill should not be altered by variants, including the Omicron variant.

In addition, thousands of doses of Merck’s Molnupiravir, also an early-stage treatment approved by the FDA, are en route to Israel.

Finally, the government on Sunday approved an aid package worth hundreds of millions of shekels for the tourism industry: NIS 25 million to subsidize tours for the public, NIS 60m. for inbound tourism organizers and NIS 150m. for inbound tourism hotels.

The move comes as Israel continues to block foreign entry into the country.