Israel starts reopening as number of Covid-19 vaccinees nears 50%

Israel is reopening large swaths of its economy including malls and leisure facilities. Its government is crediting a rapid vaccine rollout for its start of a return to normalcy.

JERUSALEM (REUTERS) - Israel reopened swathes of its economy on Sunday (Feb 21) in what it called the start of a return to routine enabled by a Covid-19 vaccination drive that has reached almost half the population.

While shops were open to all, access to leisure sites like gyms and theatres was limited to people who have had both doses of the vaccine more than a week prior or those who have recovered from the disease with presumed immunity. 

Those people get "Green Pass" status displayed on a Health Ministry app.

Mask wearing and social distancing measures are still in force.

Dancing is barred at banquet halls, and synagogues, mosques or churches are required to halve their normal number of worshippers.

Coming exactly a year after Israel's first documented coronavirus case, Sunday's easing of curbs is part of a government plan to open the economy more widely next month, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is up for re-election.

"We are the first country in the world that is reviving itself thanks to the millions of vaccines we brought in," he tweeted. "Vaccinated? Get the Green Pass and get back to life."

Israel has administered at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine to more than 46 per cent of its nine million population, the Health Ministry says.

The risk of illness from Covid-19 dropped by 95.8 per cent among people who received both shots of the vaccine, the Health minisry said on Saturday.

The country has logged more than 740,000 cases and 5,500 deaths from the illness, prompting criticism of the Netanyahu government's sometimes patchy enforcement of three national lockdowns. It has pledged that there will not be a fourth.

But Dr Nachman Ash, a physician in charge of the country’s pandemic response, told Army Radio that another lockdown "is still possible ... Half of the population is still not immune."

Elementary schoolers and students in the last two years of high school attended classes on Sunday in Israeli towns found to have contagion rates under control. Middle schoolers are due back by next month, after almost a year of remote learning.