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Israel aims to have provided a coronavirus vaccine to everyone over the age of 16 by the end of March, but it’s already beginning to reap the benefits.
From Sunday February 21, Israeli citizens who can provide a ‘green pass’ – an app or printed certificate proving that they have received two Covid vaccination – will be able to attend cultural events. Two weeks later, on March 7, venues and nightclubs will technically be able to reopen.
The world is looking to Israel for a sense of what the ‘new normal’ will look like – but sadly, there’s no clear pathway for the return of dancing, singing and sweating in enclosed venues. In Tel Aviv, the realities behind reopening venues present a murky, bewildering picture.
“For us now we are very confused,” says Itai Drai, who expresses dismay at the lack of clarity over what lay ahead for Teder, the multi-faceted venue he runs with several partners. “We’re living day-by-day and week-by-week”.
The outline of the plan for re-opening Israeli society was released on Monday via a statement from the prime minister’s office and health ministry, but the regulations on capacity limits and social distancing requirements are yet to be announced.
However, social gatherings of 20 people indoors and 50 outside from March 7 will be permitted, which suggests that the re-opening process may become swifter for venues once the number of those with two vaccinations grows. Current evidence regarding transmission of Covid-19 post-vaccination from studies of animals and those who have received the Pfizer vaccine, points towards significantly lower transmission rates. “Most evidence supports that fully vaccinated people can get together without infecting each other, however this still needs to be proven scientifically,” says Eyel Leshem, an infectious diseases specialist at Sheba Medical Centre.
Roy Fridman, owner of production company Music Tel Aviv and promoter of open-air club night Spoons, is hopeful that the growth in second jabs amongst those under 40 will result in larger scale events returning by May. “We want to believe in May and June that there will be 500 people allowed in venues, then 1000 in June,” he says. “This is what representatives of the night scene have been told by the Ministry of Health.”
But confusion reigns. Drai says he needs to be able to sell food and drink to continue running Teder so that he can enable free entry, and pay the artists performing, but the Israeli government has given no indication of whether this is likely to be allowed in the weeks ahead.
Yaron Trax, owner of renowned Tel Aviv nightclub The Block, is adamant that there is not enough information available yet to safely re-open venues. “I know for a fact that I don’t want to risk anybody’s health – this is more important than clubbing and dancing,” he says.
Giyora Yahalom, director of cultural affairs at the Tel Aviv Municipality, paints a picture of a much longer route towards normality. “It’s going to take at least a year, even with mass vaccination – we will open whatever we can.” On the question of whether venues like The Block could reopen soon, Yahalom offers little hope beyond seated performances with reduced capacity – “they’ll be able to do something, that’s a start”.
The debate in Israel mirrors that taking place in other countries, which are a few weeks or months behind in their vaccination programmes. On February 16, UK prime minister Boris Johnson suggested that British citizens may have a pathway towards returning to nightlife, via the mass usage of rapid lateral flow tests which would require staggered entry and complex logistics as attendees wait 15 minutes or more for their results.
But there are tricky challenges which need to be worked out – and Tel Aviv may become a staging ground. Leshem argues that there are concerns with the mass-testing approach, such as groups congregating while waiting for their results and the possibility of false-positive and false-negative results. The green pass policy is, he says, the most effective approach for re-opening nightlife – although politicians in the UK have been reluctant to throw their support behind any sort of ‘vaccine passport’. “It is a much more reasonable approach at least scientifically,” he says. “What it tells you is that as long as you pose a risk to others, you’re banned from some activities.”
But there are problems there too. The green pass system was launched by health minister Yuli Edelstein on February 19, and Israeli news has already reported that a black market for fake vaccination certificates has sprung up on Telegram, where over 100,000 users have joined groups offering passes for purchase.
Whilst Israel’s green pass policy at present does not forbid unvaccinated citizens from entering into spaces such as supermarkets, there is little information into how it will progress and whether further restrictions will be applied.
The country also offers a unique case study of the challenges of having a partially vaccinated population. Notably, questions remain over how the system will impact Palestinian citizens that travel to Israel and Israeli settlements for work from the occupied West Bank, with Health Minister Edelstein recently revealing that Israel was “seriously discussing” providing them with vaccinations.
This would result only a few hundred thousand occupied West Bank residents benefitting from Israel’s current vaccination programme. At present, the programme excludes the estimated 4.6 million Palestinian residents of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, with the exception of those living in East Jerusalem.
Sawsen Zaher, deputy general director at Adalah – a human rights organisation and legal centre focussed on protecting the rights of Palestinians in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories – describes the vaccine divide bleakly. “Professional medical ethics…guarantee equal treatment for all,” she says. “Adalah urges Israeli authorities to live up to their legal obligations and ensure that quality vaccines be provided to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.”
In Ramallah in the West Bank, which has only just begun its vaccination drive, nightlife seems even further away. “There isn’t any sense of when this going to be opening any time soon,” says Ramallah resident DJ Dar. “I think that the nightlife has really just taken a full stop here.“ Unlike in Tel Aviv, nightlife re-opening discussions in the occupied Palestinian territories appear to be non-existent.
While Tel Aviv is on the path towards full vaccination, with 67 per cent of the city’s residents having received their first jab by February 18, it seems clear that the city’s high level of vaccination does not promise the imminent return of nightlife.
Israel’s green pass system offers a potential blueprint for reopening, however and other countries will be watching closely – as will the UK’s own nightlife sector, where a recent survey revealed that 85 per cent of workers were considering leaving due to the long-term impact of the pandemic. But the mood in vaccinated Tel Aviv remains cautious rather than hopeful. “A friend just called me to do a booking in September and I still can’t do it,” says Drai. “I still feel weird about making real plans for the summer, even for the end of the year.”
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