Can Israel expect to see an end to compulsory mask-wearing in the near future?

While the government has said that for now, the requirement to wear masks indoors won't be removed, they may revisit and reverse this decision in the coming weeks.

People walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem last week, some wearing masks, others not. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
People walk on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem last week, some wearing masks, others not.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

As daily coronavirus cases in Israel continue to decline, having dropped by over 43% in only a week, the country is looking forward to returning to a normal routine once more and the government is discussing what restrictions to remove and which ones to keep.

One of the big questions being asked by many is “will we still have to wear masks in public spaces?” While the government has said that for now, the requirement to wear masks indoors will not be removed, it may be revisited and reversed in the coming weeks.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy lab at Bar-Ilan University, explained the factors that must be considered in deciding on mask wearing and why it is still too soon to lift restrictions.

Firstly, he explained that despite some reports suggesting otherwise, masks are still effective in the fight against Omicron, although, as with all variants, some have been more effective than others.

“There was an ability to lower the risk of infection by 60-70% with a surgical mask, and with the K95 or KN95 masks it was higher, about 80-90%,” he said, citing CDC research on the subject.

 Children wearing face masks attend a class as students return to school after the summer break, less than a month into a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine booster drive, at Arazim Elementary School in Tel Aviv, Israel September 1, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN) Children wearing face masks attend a class as students return to school after the summer break, less than a month into a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine booster drive, at Arazim Elementary School in Tel Aviv, Israel September 1, 2021 (credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

So if masks have proven effective in avoiding infection by the Omicron variant, are people being too hasty in calling for their wearing to be removed? Or is the government right to be cautious and say that the issue will be revisited in the near future?

“I do believe there is a need for masks right now,” Cohen told the Post. “True, things are looking better but we should remember that there are still around 20,000 new infections daily and over 200 people are on ventilators. It is such an easy thing to do, to wear a mask, you get protection and you protect others.”

He added that as more restrictions are removed, mask wearing becomes even more important to stop the spread of infection, especially as tourism is revived.

“We are opening everything, unvaccinated children and tourists are coming to Israel, we need to have a gradual process of lifting regulations like we did last summer. We have eliminated the Green Pass so I think that masks will be the last thing to go.”

That’s not to say that there will always be an indoor mask mandate, however. Israel has not had an outdoor mask mandate since April 2021, and briefly lifted the indoor mandate as well, although the arrival of the Delta variant saw it being reinstated a few weeks later.

“Once the situation is stabilized, it could be a few weeks from now, but when things are better, we can reconsider some of the regulations,” said Cohen.

“At the end of the day, in the general population, the regulation will be lifted, but for sensitive places with vulnerable people like old-age homes or hospitals, they could remain in place to maintain safety.”

When looking at what has been done in the past, it is safe to assume that if the number of daily infections and serious cases continues to drop, the government will reexamine the issue and lift, or adapt, the mask mandate as they see fit.

“I think that if things do not change and if there is a variant like the BA.2 Omicron subvariant that is less problematic than the ones we experienced in the past, it will be a logical thing to turn to a more limited use of the mask, and to encourage but not enforce wearing it.”

While face masks have come to be associated with the coronavirus in the West, in many other places they were worn before the pandemic and will continue to be worn afterwards.

In Japan, Taiwan and China, as well as many other Asian countries, masks have been worn for a number of different reasons, some medical and some not, since mid-way through the last century.

One common reason a person may wear a mask in these countries is to protect others when they are sick, even with something as simple as a cold. Another reason could be to serve as protection against pollution or exhaust fumes.

So while some are eagerly awaiting the day when they can throw out their masks and not look back, will others be more cautious, wishing to adopt a similar mask-wearing habit for themselves?

“The thing to keep in mind is that masks are not only for Covid,” he elaborated. “They can help against a whole range of diseases.”

However, it would be highly unlikely for any place, even hospitals, to make mask-wearing compulsory for non-pandemic related reasons. Instead, people may just simply choose to keep wearing them in situations where they feel it will make them safer and less exposed

“I think it will be more of a voluntary basis,” he explained to the Post. “We are not accustomed to it in Western countries, it is usually only people undergoing chemotherapy, for example, but I think that might change gradually.”