With the number of Israelis vaccinated against COVID-19 topping 5 million and the country experiencing fewer than 100 new daily cases, the government ended its outdoor mask mandate on Sunday, spurring widespread celebration and forcing people to change deeply ingrained habits formed by just over a year of mandatory virus precautions.
“I forgot I was wearing it. I walked outside and forgot to take it off,” Harold, an immigrant from Chicago, said as he removed his mask on the sidewalk outside a pharmacy in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Bet Shemesh.
“Outdoors I feel like a butterfly freed from the cocoon,” he enthused. “But I still have qualms of trepidation from close quarters.”
While people are now allowed to walk without a mask outside, the old rules still apply indoors at venues such as stores, malls and houses of worship and some people seem to have trouble switching gears. While most people in this Jerusalem suburb removed their masks on Sunday, a sizable minority continued to wear theirs, with many in the local shopping district keeping them on their chins for easy access when entering shops.
However, overall compliance with the mask mandate had been on the decline for some time before Sunday’s rule change, with local media reporting late last month that the Israel Police had instructed officers to refrain from active enforcement.
Speaking at a photo-op at a Jerusalem school on Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the public to continue observing the remaining guidelines in the wake of the change, stating that masks “must be worn inside buildings and classrooms” and warning that “we are not finished yet with the coronavirus.”
“It’s a great feeling” and a “huge present” to go maskless, Mor, an ultra-Orthodox shopper at the city’s Big Shopping Center, told Haaretz.
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“Suddenly everything feels different. My kids are back in school and everything is back to routine,” he said, referring to the resumption of full-time classes alongside the repeal of the mask mandate on Sunday.
Walking with his family at the nearby Shaarei Ha’ir mall, Yisroel Reiss said that while the new rules haven’t particularly affected him, his daughter has been reluctant to remove her mask.
A recovered COVID patient who has since been vaccinated, he said that he hasn’t bothered with wearing a mask for some time, but that he does feel slightly more relaxed since the rule means that he won’t run afoul of the police. However, he said, his daughter is another story. Several of her friends recently came down with the virus, causing most of her class to go into quarantine, a traumatic experience for a young child. “People are transitioning mentally to being freed,” he said.
While that may be true for some, others appear to have adjusted rather quickly, jettisoning indoor mask wearing as well. Congregants at one Bet Shemesh synagogue visited by Haaretz were crowded together with almost no masks in sight.
Such violations are not only limited to houses of worship. According to one Health Ministry official, who spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity, the government is “not seeing a high level of enforcement of the Green Pass,” Israel’s vaccine passport, by restaurants.
However, despite this, public health officials have lauded the end of the mask mandate as a positive step on the road to normalcy.
“There was no good scientific evidence for such policy, which hurt public trust,” asserted Prof. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at Hebrew University and, until recently, the chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.
“This policy became even stranger when incidence became very low and most susceptible populations were vaccinated. The Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians called long ago to cancel the mandatory mask wearing outdoors.”
Despite his support for Sunday’s changes, Levine cautioned that increased public outreach will be necessary to maintain mask wearing indoors, stating that the “lack of such public health program could result in lack of adherence to health recommendations.”
Because of the reduction in cases and fall in morbidity, Israel was able to “take a risk” but “we must remember that COVID is still with us and we have not reached herd immunity and still need masks in closed places,” Prof. Nadav Davidovich, director of the School of Public Health at Ben-Gurion University and Levine’s interim successor at the physicians' association, told Haaretz.
Asked if the lifting of the mandate would cause Israelis to become lax indoors, he replied that wearing masks in shops has already become a “social norm” and that such precautions have become “integrated into our culture.”
“We are fortunate to be moving into a new normal phase and it’s reasonable to not wear masks outside where the risk is much lower” but “at large gatherings it is better to use masks,” he cautioned. “The most important thing is to be vaccinated. One million people who are eligible are not vaccinated and more should be invested in vaccination and contact tracing.”