Shimi, 14, has been in quarantine at home in a Tel Aviv suburb for several days. He didn’t catch the coronavirus nor had he been exposed, as far as he knows, to anybody with the virus. He had returned from a 10-day vacation with his mother in the Central Asian republic of Georgia.
Israeli health directives required him to quarantine because he hadn’t been vaccinated (although the vaccine is now available to those 12 and over). His mother, Hagit, has been immunized and doesn’t have to isolate, but she didn’t think twice about taking her son abroad.
“For a 14-year-old boy, being in quarantine at home isn’t such a bad thing,” Hagit says. “He was home in front of the computer for almost a year, so what’s another week?”
Hagit and Shimi traveled to Georgia with another mother and son duo. The four spent most of the time in nature – rafting, ziplining and hiking in the mountains – and were therefore not particularly worried about catching the coronavirus. “It was just us and a guide. We weren’t around [other] people in enclosed spaces, and even in open areas in nature, we didn’t get close to people,” Hagit says. “The only thing that I was afraid of was false test results. It was nerve-wracking, but ultimately everything went absolutely fine.”
Israeli Health Ministry directives require that even though Shimi tested negative at Ben-Gurion airport on his return to Israel, he has to quarantine for 14 days. That could be cut short if he has another COVID test seven days after his return and tests negative.
'We aren’t going to cities with masses of people, such as London, Paris or Rome. Instead, we’re traveling through the Alps with overnight stays in nature in huts'
Should we stay or should we go
Many Israeli families are wondering whether or not to travel abroad with the kids this summer or during the Jewish holiday period in September, despite quarantine requirements on their return – or even worse, the prospect of getting infected abroad and having to go into isolation in a foreign country. Many families are electing to go, ignoring Prime Minister Naftali Bennett beseeching the people to refrain from non-essential travel overseas due to the pandemic.
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“The cost of the entire trip for me and my son, including a car, food and even some shopping, was 7,000 shekels [$2,150] for 10 days,” Hagit said. “Where in Israel could you do that for such a price? We went a lot of places and saw a lot. Being abroad is being abroad. There’s no comparison.”
She adds that vacation in Israel costs more: “I understand that people are afraid. Everyone should do what’s right for them. If you know how to protect yourself here, you can protect yourself abroad. It would be a pity to prevent people from traveling and getting a bit of fresh air.”
July is expected to bring the highest level of passenger traffic at Ben-Gurion International Airport since the beginning of the pandemic, with the anticipated arrival or departure of 800,000 passengers. June’s traffic figures were 574,000. It’s still pitiful compared with July 2019 (before the COVID outbreak), when the airport saw 2.5 million passengers.
Given that the list of no-go places because of the coronavirus is growing, and based on reports about coronavirus variants reaching Israel via the airport, travel industry people don’t expect the July uptick to continue into August.
Families deciding to go anyway
Hila Mor Alon, her husband, Ran, and their children have planned a 12-day trip to Austria. They had gone there every year before the pandemic hit. Hila and Ran recovered several months ago from COVID; they are their 14-year-old son have been vaccinated. But their younger son, 9, cannot be vaccinated and hasn’t been infected, so he will have to do at least a week of quarantine when he gets home to Tel Aviv.
“When you go for vacation for almost two weeks, a week in quarantine for a young boy isn’t that bad. I think it’s better to travel, to have experiences and to handle the quarantine than just sit at home by the air conditioner in August,” Hila Mor Alon said. They have expanded insurance covering them in case of infection abroad, she added.
Cheap tickets, bought back in November, was also a consideration, she added. “There was a very tempting fare of $265, luggage fees included, on Lufthansa. That’s an excellent fare for such an airline during the summer. Usually they charge at least twice that,” she said. “The tickets are flexible, and we could have changed the dates of travel once, so we went for it.”
And they did change the date: “A week ago, reports began regarding possible week-long quarantine requirements for anyone returning from anywhere abroad, including those who have been vaccinated, and my husband got nervous,” Mor Alon recounted. “So we moved our flight up by two weeks.” In the end the policy didn’t change, she adds.
Mor Alon, who runs a Hebrew-language Facebook group called “Hul Zeh Kan,” (Abroad is Here), said many of its members only finalize flights at the last moment, and a lot cancelled because of fear of quarantine for everyone on returning. “During the first year of the coronavirus, there a lot of people were opposed to travel abroad, but over time, we have understood that life goes on and COVID is staying with us and we need to learn to live with it.”
For the kids, the trip was fantastic: “In the past, they took it for granted that we would travel abroad, but now they appreciate it,” she said. “We aren’t going to cities with masses of people, such as London, Paris or Rome. Instead, we’re traveling through the Alps with overnight stays in nature in huts. The only friends around us will be cows with bells.”
Austria, she noted, strictly follows pandemic rules on admission to public places. “Those 12 and over can’t be admitted to an attraction or restaurant at all without vaccination certificate or an antigen test,” she said.
Learning to live with the virus
Ayelet Wilder of Haifa and her young son have just returned from a month-long vacation in the Netherlands and Austria. Wilder is not vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus. Nor is her son. She hesitated to take the trip when the idea first came up. “I had gone to Serbia in December with my son, and we were there for a month and a half. It was a pleasure,” Wilder said. “I’m not a coronavirus denier. The coronavirus is something that we need to learn to live with. It could be that because I have dealt with more serious illnesses, because my eldest son had cancer, my approach is different. I think we need to focus our energies on other things and not be afraid.”
Nor is she afraid of becoming infected abroad. “Even if I have to go into isolation abroad, we’ll manage. If something happens and I really get seriously ill, someone will come to take my son. I’ll work it out. You need to think about solutions and not about problems. I am thankful that the coronavirus hasn’t stressed me out and quarantine doesn’t either. I was in quarantine for three months with my older son after he had a bone-marrow transplant several years ago, and that was much stricter quarantine. I choose to look at the good things. That’s all.
“I’m not sure that I’m 100 percent right,” Wilder admitted. “I make my choices based on what looks correct to me at the moment, and if something goes wrong, I deal with it. I haven’t seen that the situation abroad is worse than in Israel. COVID here and there is the same COVID. There are open spaces in the places where we were in Europe. We hiked in nature, whereas here, when we’ve gone into a supermarket, there have been crowds even during the lockdowns. The energy in Europe appears to be calmer. They keep their distance and are very attentive to the directives. No one would come in with a mask just on their mouth or on their chin like they do here. They put on the mask as they are told to. I don’t think we need to stop traveling.”