Israel drops outdoor face masks after 61% of citizens get first COVID-19 vaccine shot

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By Mark Armstrong  with AFP, AP
Wearing a mask outdoors in Israel is no longer a rule
Wearing a mask outdoors in Israel is no longer a rule   -  Copyright  AFP

Israelis stepped out into the streets unmasked for the first time in a year on Sunday amid a further easing of COVID-19 safety restrictions.

The government has relaxed the rule on mask-wearing outdoors in response to its successful mass vaccination drive, which has now seen 5.34 million people receive their first shot.

All in all, 61.7 per cent of Israel's 9.3 million citizens have now had a first dose of the vaccine, and 57.4 per cent are fully inoculated.

Newly-recorded COVID-19 cases and deaths in Israel continue to plummet, with just 14 new infections and no deaths recorded on April 17.

The country has also fully reopened all schools and universities. On Saturday, some Israelis spoke to the media about the "strange" but welcome experience of being able to ditch their masks in public.

"Keeping people safe is also a form of freedom," said Eliana Gamulka, a shopper in Jaffa Street, Jerusalem. "But it's nice not to have something on your face anymore.

"I'm getting married in two weeks and it's very nice to be able to celebrate with everyone. Without a mask, the pictures will be great."

Israel's coronavirus tsar Nachman Ash told Israeli public radio on Sunday that removing the mask requirement outdoors and reinitiating in-class studies was a "``calculated risk".

Since the outset of the pandemic Israel has recorded over 836,000 cases of the coronavirus and over 6000 deaths. Like many other countries it experienced a second peak in January 2021.

Despite the success of the vaccine drive in most of Israel, efforts in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza have been slow to get off the ground, with the country facing criticism for not sharing more of its supplies.