With the huge 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. This marked Israel as one of the nations to roll out the vaccine the fastest.
Health minister Yuli Edelstein said on Thursday that he had advised ministry director-general Chezy Levy to end the requirement this weekend, which coincides with the 73rd anniversary of Israel’s Independence Day. “The masks are intended to protect us from the coronavirus,” Edelstein said. “After professionals decided this was no longer required in open spaces, I decided to enable taking them off.”
However masks are still required in indoor public spaces, like stores, malls, and places of worship. But the change was a stark signal of the country’s progress against the pandemic, which even the most powerful nations have not been able to do so.
On Monday, the country also took another step toward a pre-COVID-19 reality, fully reopening schools for the first time since September. All primary and secondary school students returned to classrooms on Sunday, marking a full return to education. Students will still be required to wear masks indoors but will be allowed to take them off during physical education (PE), when they eat, and in between classes.
The education ministry said that schools should continue to encourage personal hygiene, ventilation of classrooms and to maintain social distancing as much distance as possible during breaks and lessons.
60% of Israel’s population has had a first dose of the vaccine, while 56% have had both. The country’s population is about 9 million. About 81% of Israelis older than 16 have been fully vaccinated. People under the age of 16 are not eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Israel has overseen a rapid rollout, and the effects appear to be showing. This was possible through the country securing a large number of doses early and helped by the country’s centralized, data-driven healthcare system. A flexible approach to distributing leftover doses also reduced waste and sped things up.
“We are leading the world right now when it comes to emerging from the coronavirus,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, according to Reuters. “But we have still not finished with the coronavirus. It can return.”
Despite a general mood of jubilation at the lifting of the mandate, some people are adjusting slowly and still opting to keep their masks on outdoors.
The successful vaccine campaign has also allowed Israel to fully open its economy and the country. Last week, Israel announced it would be reopening the country to vaccinated foreign tourists in May.
Since the start of the pandemic last year, Israel has recorded over 836,000 cases of the coronavirus and at least 6,331 deaths, according to the Health Ministry. Israel counts East Jerusalem Palestinians among its population and has been administering the vaccines there too.