Israel Imposes New COVID Restrictions Ahead of High Holy Days, School Year

Prior to the pandemic, tens of thousands of people attended services at Jerusalem's Western Wall every night from before Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, but now the crowd is restricted to 8,000 people

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Worshippers at Selihot services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2019.
Worshippers at Selihot services at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

The coronavirus cabinet approved on Monday new restrictions to halt the spread of the delta variant, including a plan proposed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to limit the number of worshipers at the Western Wall for selihot penitential prayers to no more than 8,000 people.

Prior to the pandemic, tens of thousands of people attended these prayers every night from before Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. The selihot period according to Sephardi tradition began three weeks ago, while for Ashkenazim, it started last Saturday night – but the period reaches its pinnacle between Rosh Hashanah, which this year begins the evening of September 6, and Yom Kippur.

Bennett’s plan calls for selihot worshipers to be divided into pods and to wear masks, including outdoors.

At their meeting, the ministers also extended so-called Green Pass regulations to all staff at health and educational institutions, as well as employees at any location where customers are subject to the Green Pass rules. The rules make admission to various public locations subject to presentation of proof of vaccination or recovery from the virus (and antibody testing for children too young to be vaccinated).

After holding a final consultation on the expected reopening of schools on September 1, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett approved the expansion of the so-called Green Pass rules, which allow entry into various venues to those with proof of immunity, so that they also apply to all employees in health and education institutions, as well as employees anywhere required to operate in accordance with the rules.

Additionally, the government has decided to make expansive use of rapid antigen swab tests. Teachers who are unvaccinated will be required to get tested twice a week at rapid testing complexes across the country.

Bennett also decided that in “red” cities (which have high rates of infection), in grades 8 to 12, any class with a vaccination rate of less than 70 percent would have to study remotely (while a class with a higher vaccine rate can come to school). Finally, the government determined that from September 30, inoculation will be measured by having received two doses of the vaccine, and students who are learning remotely will be encouraged to get vaccinated in schools. 

The Education Ministry estimated that roughly 150,000 students in 8th through 12th grade would be expected to study by distance learning in red communities based on the current plan. 

On Sunday, Israel recorded its highest percentage of positive coronavirus tests since February. According to Health Ministry data published Monday morning, 7.81 percent of tests taken Sunday came back positive. During the third wave of the pandemic, the average was 9 percent.

On Monday, the number of COVID deaths in Israel since the pandemic started last year reached 7,030. A total of 736 patients were reportedly in serious condition, with 211 in critical condition and 163 on ventilators. Israel also identified 6,621 new cases on Sunday.

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