Facing Delta Variant Outbreak, Israel Appoints Special Airport Czar

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Haaretz
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Travellers leaving Israel's Ben Gurion airport, last week
Travellers leaving Israel's Ben Gurion airport, last weekCredit: Hadas Parush
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Haaretz

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday that Ben-Gurion Airport is "a huge national vulnerability" in terms of the COVID spread, and announced the appointment of a special czar for Israel's international gateway.

The new czar was named as Maj. Gen. (Res.) Roni Numa, who last year was tasked with managing the COVID outbreak in ultra-Orthodox cities. 

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The ban on travelling to high-risk countries was also extended until July 11, unless authorized by the exemptions committee. Violating the ban will be considered an administrative and criminal offense, with the offender liable to receive a 5000 shekel ($1540) fine. 

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, center, chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, earleir todayCredit: Maya Alleruzzo / AP

Moreover, all Israelis over the age of 16 exiting the country will be required to sign a declaration pledging not to travel to high-risk countries,  a joint statement from the Prime Minister's Office and the Health Ministry confirmed on Sunday. Airlines will be permitted to bar anybody who has not signed the declaration from boarding a plane from Tuesday, June 29. 

Speaking at the weekly government meeting, Bennett recognized how contagious the delta variant is, but added that the vaccine is effective against it. "Whoever can get a vaccine and does not is simply endangering themselves and those in their surroundings," he said.

At the meeting, Bennett also said that no further restrictions would be enforced if the public keeps wearing masks and gets vaccinated. "Our approach is simple," he said. "Maximum protection of Israeli citizens with minimum damage to the daily routine and the economy. Masks instead of restrictions; vaccines instead of lockdowns."

Coronavirus cabinet returns

Israel's coronavirus cabinet is slated to meet Sunday, as the country is seeing a dramatic rise in coronavirus cases attributed to the spread of the delta variant in recent weeks. 

The government announced the reconvening of the cabinet on Wednesday last week, the first time it will be convening since the new government was established earlier this month. 

The lifting of all coronavirus restrictions in Israel has left Ben-Gurion International Airport as the main line of defense against the entry of variants of the virus. But as has happened repeatedly over the past year and a half,  people returning from abroad apparently responsible for the outbreaks in recent weeks.

Coronavirus tests are supposed to be performed on all incoming passengers at the airport to prevent the entry of variants. But two weeks ago, hundreds of people entered the country without being tested.

Tel Aviv suburb Kfar Saba was classified as a coronavirus hotspot on Sunday, or 'yellow' under the health ministry's traffic light system. Modi'in and Kochav Yair were also designated as coronavirus hotspots on Saturday.  

On Saturday, Israel recorded 113 new coronavirus cases.

Israel reinstated its mask mandate for indoor areas on Friday, following the rise in cases. 

"About 0.6 percent of the tests are positive, indicating an increase in infection rate," coronavirus czar Dr. Nachman Ash said.

Ash explained that though the number of active cases is doubling every few days, "the rate is high because there are relatively few cases. As more cases are found, we don't expect it to continue at this [exponential] rate."

However, Ash said he does not believe Israel is entering a fourth wave of the virus.

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