The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Israel seals itself off from international travel

Airline passengers wearing protective face masks walk through the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday.
Airline passengers wearing protective face masks walk through the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International airport in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday. (Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

TEL AVIV — The arrival hall of Ben Gurion Airport's Terminal 3 is Israel's front door. On Tuesday, one day after the government instituted some of the most sweeping quarantine requirements in the global fight against coronavirus, it was a door swinging shut.

Daily arrivals had collapsed by two-thirds, according to airport authorities, falling from 65,000 to 22,000. The silence of the normally bustling hall was the harbinger of a building economic hit; Israel’s finance minister estimated Monday that the new quarantine restrictions, scheduled to last two weeks, could cost $1.4 billion.

Those few passengers who did trickle through, passing under a flight board riddled with “CANCELED” notices, found themselves subject to a baffling triage, as help-desk staffers and tour guides tried to sort the emergency procedures.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, phrases like “quarantine,” “isolation” and “social distancing” are making news. Here are the key differences of each. (Video: The Washington Post)

Most passengers were directed straight to their homes for two weeks of self-isolation. A few foreign tourists, delighted to learn they had just made it in under the wire, were allowed to set off sightseeing, still hoping for a normal vacation. Others remained unsure of their fate even as they walked out into the Israeli sun.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Rhonda Schmidt, arriving with a Canadian church group, aware that their plans to tour the Holy Land could yet land them in two weeks of hotel-room confinement. “They might still shut us down on Thursday.”

Benito Linde of Madrid looked up from his cellphone with a harried expression. He had been told one thing by a passport officer and another by his airline.

“I think I have to leave by Thursday,” said Linde, a musician who had just arrived on a flight from Madrid to visit friends in Tel Aviv. “They are friends, but I don’t think they want me here for two weeks.”

The quarantine requirements Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday will touch every person arriving from outside the country. But officials are implementing them in stages.

As of Monday night, Israeli citizens and residents were required to go straight from the airport to self-isolation, no matter what country they are returning from.

That was bad news for Valeriya Lurie, 20, who stepped off a flight from Baku ready to take her university exams in a few days. Now she will be stuck in her family’s small apartment in Natanya.

“It’s annoying when you are all prepared and they tell you, ‘See you in a month,’” Lurie said from behind her white mask. “I’m going to forget everything.”

Meanwhile, travelers from some hotspot countries, including China, Hong Kong, Macao and Korea, are banned entirely from entering Israel. And those arriving from certain effected European countries, including Italy, Germany, France, Austria and Spain, are allowed to enter only if they can prove they have a place to go immediately for quarantine.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what to tell people,” said Tomer Vildorf, who was staffing the information counter, to which he had taped a note with a Ministry of Tourism emergency number.

Israeli officials wanted to give foreign tourists and business people time to adjust to the new rules — by either arranging to be isolated or canceling their trips — so the blanket quarantine won’t apply to those arrivals until Thursday at 8 p.m.

Most of tour groups arriving Tuesday were told they could carry on with their plans unless the situation changed. Many members had dropped out before boarding the plane. One tour guide said he had three entire groups cancel that morning.

But those who decided to come were eager, despite some major sites being closed because of the infection, including the entire city of Bethlehem.

“You’re talking to a bunch of Christians who are going to walk where Jesus walked,” said Soozy Davenport of Lytle, Tex. “We have no fear.”

Israel is bracing for a major economic blow. Finance Ministry Director General Shai Babad told Israeli radio Tuesday that the two-week quarantine plan could cost the country up to $1.4 billion.

Economist Dan Ben-David got a firsthand look at how the global machinery is slowing to halt. He was waiting to board a flight to Tel Aviv Monday night in New York when news broke about the mandatory quarantine.

Passengers stampeded the counter to cancel, nearly emptying the flight, which was further delayed as United Airlines scrambled to learn what the isolation rules would mean for its flight crew.

“The scale of this is going to be pretty major,” said Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research at Tel Aviv University. He was at home, quarantined and unable to teach his classes.

But the draconian steps were well-advised, he said, given Israel’s overstretched health care system. The country has the highest occupancy rate of any OECD country, he noted, leaving it vulnerable to being overwhelmed by an epidemic.

“I don’t think we have any choice,” he said.

Labor leaders were already sounding the alarm about the impact on workers, particularly in the vital tourism and travel sectors. Peter Lerner of Israel’s General Federation of Labor said some hotels were already down to 25 percent of capacity and were laying off staff. El Al, the Israeli airline, said it was slashing 1,000 jobs.

“The Ministry of Health is basically leading the economy into a free fall,” Lerner said. “Another few days like this and it will be impossible to stop.”

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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