Coronavirus cabinet approves plan for 2,000 Israelis to fly in per day

Ministers to reconvene today *Coronavirus commissioner says authorities may impose lockdown for Purim. * As of Sunday, some 1,008 patients were in serious condition and 284 were on ventilators.

Passengers at the Departure hall at the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020.  (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
Passengers at the Departure hall at the Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv on December 14, 2020.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
The coronavirus cabinet on Sunday approved an outline to allow Israelis stuck abroad to return home while keeping the country mostly closed to incoming and outgoing flights, a Transportation Ministry spokesman said.
The plan addresses the complaints from the US Department of Transportation to the Transportation Ministry and Foreign Ministry last week that only El Al was granted permission to operate emergency flights from the US during the closure.
The US argued that the situation violated the aviation agreement between the countries, which was meant to guarantee equal treatment of Israeli and American airlines.
The new plan, meant to go into effect from February 20-28, will allow up to 2,000 people to arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport each day, up from the current 600, sources within the ministry told The Jerusalem Post. Foreign airlines will be allowed to bid on the tenders to operate the emergency flights.
All arrivals will be required to stay in coronavirus hotels, and the Health Ministry will set up an exceptions committee that can address the number of people arriving. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also suggested charging those who refuse to quarantine in hotels with a criminal offense.
The ministers approved the plan in principle, while approval of further details will take place at a later date, including legislative changes.
The meeting broke up with no decision about reopening the commercial sector or implementing the “green passport” program. The cabinet is expected to reconvene on Monday.
“We are seeing the beginning of a decline in morbidity data and this is a good sign,” Netanyahu said at the beginning of the meeting.
“However, we must proceed carefully and open up the economy gradually. We must not be pushed to open the economy irresponsibly for political reasons, for this would endanger the lives of many Israelis.”
He said the exit strategy that he and the Health Ministry brought to the cabinet consisted of three parts: maintaining a strict sealing of Israel’s borders, reopening the economy for those who are vaccinated and a campaign to inoculate everyone who is older than 50.
“We will open the economy in two stages, the first one starting next week and the second one about two weeks later,” Netanyahu said, adding that the plan “envisions benefits that will allow those who are fully vaccinated to return to a normal life, including access to hotels, museums, cultural events, restaurants, pools, malls, soccer and basketball games and flights.”
Blue and White ministers, including Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, have been insisting for several days that more restrictions on commercial activities can be lifted before February 23, the date set by the Health Ministry for the next phase of the exit strategy to begin.
However, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash told the cabinet it was important to wait another nine days. He also recommended that the authorities pass legislation requiring medical professionals, teachers and public drivers to be vaccinated, Channel 12 reported.
Starting on February 23, the Health Ministry envisions allowing access to some venues only to people who have been vaccinated or recovered from coronavirus, while street stores and essential stores would be available for everyone, the report said.
Synagogues could open under the “purple ribbon” outline, which provides specific operational guidelines regardless of people’s vaccination status, Channel 13 reported.
Earlier in the day, Ash said the authorities were considering imposing a lockdown for the upcoming Purim festival.
Purim falls on Friday, February 26, except in Jerusalem, where it falls on the following Sunday. Last year, Purim celebrations were considered responsible for a peak in coronavirus infections both in Israel and in Diaspora communities. Gantz told his ministers he would support the Purim lockdown.
The ministers were expected to approve a biweekly update of the “traffic light” program, under which cities and towns all over the country are allowed to open schools, Ash told the Hebrew website Ynet. Currently, the status of each locality is updated once a week. The hope is to return more children to the classrooms faster.
At the moment, only daycares and grades 1-4 in green, yellow and light orange areas are back to learning in person, leaving some two million students at home. Grades 5-6 and 11-12 are set to resume on February 23.
However, no decision regarding the traffic-light program was reached on Sunday.
Ahead of the meeting, Culture and Sport Minister Chili Tropper (Blue and White) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (Likud) agreed to open cultural events, museums and libraries under the green-passport plan, also starting on February 23.
“As I promised, after the prolonged closure, the world of culture will be one of the first to open up under the green-passport outline we formulated with the Health Ministry and with the assumption that infection rate data will allow it,” Tropper said. “I demanded that a date would be set for the opening of the culture industry to prepare it.”
Some 3.9 million Israelis had received at least the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine as of Sunday morning. About 2.5 million of them have already been inoculated twice. Full immunity is believed to kick in seven days after the second shot, when people are also expected to be granted the green passport.
Some 1,875 new cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in Israel on Saturday, with 7.8% of about 25,000 tests returning positive, the Health Ministry reported Sunday morning. The data is not considered very significant due to the meager number of tests that are administered on Shabbat.
As of Sunday afternoon, some 1,008 patients were in serious condition, and 284 were on ventilators. The death toll rose to 5,378.