JERUSALEM: Israel reopened swathes of its economy including malls and leisure facilities on Sunday (Feb 21), with the government saying the start of a return to routine was enabled by COVID-19 vaccines administered to almost half the population.
While shops were open to all, access to leisure sites like gyms and theatres was limited to vaccinees or those who have recovered from the disease with presumed immunity, a so-called "Green Pass" status displayed on a special Health Ministry app.
Pass-holders could prove their status by presenting a vaccination certificate or downloading a Health Ministry app linked to their medical files.
Coming exactly a year after Israel's first documented COVID-19 case, Sunday's easing of curbs is part of a government plan to open the economy more widely next month, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is up for reelection.
"We are the first country in the world that is reviving itself thanks to the millions of vaccines we brought in," he tweeted. "Vaccinated? Get the Green Pass and get back to life."
Mask-wearing and social-distancing were still in force. Dancing was barred at banquet halls. Synagogues, mosques or churches were required to halve their normal congregation sizes.
Elementary schoolchildren and pupils in the last two years of high school resumed classes in towns with contagion rates under control. Middle-school pupils were still home-learning, however, prompting some to stage a sit-down protest in a mall.
"I haven't been in school in a year," said 14-year-old demonstrator Rotem Bachar. "How does it make sense to open malls up to crowds, while we can't attend class if even they are capped at 15 to 20 pupils and have other precautions?"
Israel has administered at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine to more than 45 per cent of its 9 million population, the Health Ministry says. The two-shot regimen has reduced COVID-19 infections by 95.8 per cent, ministry data showed.
The country has logged more than 740,000 cases and 5,500 deaths from the illness, prompting criticism of the Netanyahu government's sometimes patchy enforcement of three national lockdowns. It has pledged that there will not be a fourth.
But Nachman Ash, a physician in charge of the country's pandemic response, told Army Radio that another lockdown "is still possible ... Half of the population is still not immune".