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With most adults now vaccinated, Israelis are busting loose

A Tel Aviv beach bar on Monday, after authorities announced that masks were no longer needed outside. (Corinna Kern for The Washington Post)
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JERUSALEM — Israel is partying like it's 2019. With most adults now vaccinated against the coronavirus and restrictions falling away — including the lifting this week of outdoor mask requirements — Israelis are joyously resuming routines that were disrupted more than a year ago and providing a glimpse of what the future could hold for other countries.

Restaurants are booming outside and in. Concerts, bars and hotels are open to those who can flash their vaccine certificates. Classrooms are back to pre-covid capacity.

The rate of new infections has plummeted — from a peak of almost 10,000 a day to about 140 — and the number of serious coronavirus cases in many hospitals is down to single digits. The emergency covid-19 ward at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv resumed duty as a parking garage, and waiting rooms are suddenly flooded with non-covid patients coming for long-deferred treatments.

“It feels like it is going away for good this time,” said Sarah Goldstain, 24, who was standing with her bare face turned skyward at Jerusalem’s outdoor Mamilla Mall. “I can breathe. I have the sun on my face.”

Health officials are quick to note that the pandemic is not over. Infections continue to rage in countries around the world and next door in the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Variants of the virus, some of which may be more resistant to vaccines, require strict surveillance.

Some Israelis eschewed masks April 19 as the mandatory wearing of protective masks outdoors was rescinded in the country's latest return to relative normality (Video: Reuters)

But even cautious epidemiologists say that Israel can breathe easier and that the country is showing what other nations can expect if they can keep on vaccinating. With almost 90 percent of the most vulnerable cohort — those 50 and older — fully inoculated, experts say hospital ICU units are now shielded from being overwhelmed, as almost happened earlier in the pandemic.

“We do need to be alert,” said Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist at Hebrew-Hadassah University and recent chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “There is always the possibility that we will see outbreaks in schools [where most students are too young to be vaccinated], but it’s now extremely unlikely they would lead to a public health crisis.”

And so Israelis are busting loose. Rush hours are back. Restaurants that were carryout only weeks ago now have waiting lists for their dining rooms.

“The first day that we opened here, we were flooded,” said David Aboucaya, the French-born owner of the Par Derriere restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Jaffa area. “People are having a ball. People at the beaches . . . it’s like, wow!”

Tzuriel Arviv sat on a Tel Aviv beach drinking beer with a friend Monday, starting to unlearn the strange muscle memory he had to pick up during the pandemic.

“We had all kinds of habits,” Arviv said. “We would check ourselves, ‘Do we have a mask?’ Who ever imagined such a thing before? But now, we can forget it.”

The 19-year-old soldier said he was fined about $150 more than once for violating travel restrictions in place during Israel’s three national lockdowns. “We were like stuck to the house. But I just delayed paying it, and at the end, they canceled it, so all good.”

Shlomit Dagan, 52, was crying in the lobby of the Cameri Theatre as she prepared to see her first Tel Aviv play in months, a matinee titled “A Genius in a Cage.” She hugged other theatergoers, relishing the lack of social distancing.

“It’s been a year without air,” she said, reflecting on the pandemic closure of theaters and galleries.

Israel offers a lesson in patience for other countries anxiously waiting for their covid numbers to bend downward. Just two months ago, even as Israelis rushed to get their shots at one of the fastest rates in the world, the spread of the disease stubbornly refused to slow.

But suddenly a key measure — the “reproduction number,” which shows how many people an infected person will in turn infect — began to trend downward. This “R number” has stayed low even as malls, restaurants and schools began to reopen.

“We were quickly vaccinating the population, and at the same time, we were dealing with huge numbers every day,” Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said in an interview. “And then all of the sudden, there was a breaking point.”

Israel’s ahead-of-the-world vaccine rollout offers hope to countries lagging behind

Israel has delivered just under 10 million doses of the two-shot Pfizer vaccine regimen, reaching 4.98 million people, or about 55 percent of its total population. An additional 400,000 Israelis have received one shot. If those who have been infected and then recovered are added in, more than 60 percent of Israeli residents now have some level of protective antibodies. The virus is running short of vulnerable bodies to infect.

Edelstein won’t say that Israel has achieved a coveted level of “herd immunity.” But some scientists say that’s exactly what explains the dramatic falloff of infections among not only the vaccinated but also the millions of young people still ineligible for a shot.

“You are reaching a threshold that is very close to herd immunity,” said Yoram Weiss, director of Jerusalem’s Hadassah University Medical Center.

His hospital is now decommissioning its four emergency covid wards, an operation that consumed about a fifth of his doctors and nurses. In January, the units housed more than 150 covid patients. This week, there were six. Said Weiss: “We’re seeing an explosion of other patients now — everyone who was afraid to come in before.”

But even as it reopens its economy, Israel is not yet providing vaccine doses on a large scale to the 5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza, occupied in the 1967 war.

“We right now don’t have vaccines. We basically administered everything we had,” Edelstein said. “We’ll see how things develop.” He noted that Israel had provided vaccinations for Palestinian health workers and that his ministry had inoculated almost 130,000 Palestinians who work in Israel.

On Monday, 72,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived in the West Bank and Gaza as part of the global Covax program to supply poor countries. Other donated vaccine stock has arrived, but it’s far short of what Palestinian officials need to reach their target of inoculating 60 to 70 percent of their population by the third quarter of this year.

“We are far from that, not through the fault of the government, but as a result of delays from the companies producing vaccines,” said Yasser Buzaih, director general of vaccines at the Palestinian Health Ministry.

At the theater in Tel Aviv, Dagan’s joy was tempered by her recognition of the harm the coronavirus had done to the arts. A culture official from northern Israel, she has begun sorting out the damage, noting the out-of-work actors and musicians.

At Israeli schools, meanwhile, teachers have been assessing what was lost in months of Zoom classes. And at least 30,000 small businesses have failed during the pandemic, according to media reports. With Ben Gurion Airport still closed to international visitors, normality is also still months away for Israel’s vital tourism sector.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, the eerie pall of recent months had lifted slightly by this week, with student groups from Tel Aviv and a few busloads of Israeli visitors from other parts of the country adding a long-missing buzz to the ancient stone alleyways. Most of the souvenir shops along David Street were open.

But Sareg Abu Assab said that while the four shoppers in his store — two Israelis and a pair of Portuguese diplomats — were a welcome uptick, they did little to make up for the monthly $15,000 to $20,000 he’s lost during the pandemic. He and his family have been living on an emergency government business grant of $1,000 to $2,000 a month, he said. “Inshallah, in two or three months, it will be better,” he added.

Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.