Yesterday Israel started to exit its second national COVID-19 lockdown which had lasted for 4 weeks. For many people this meant a much needed trip out beyond the prior 1km limit.
During the lockdown, schools and non-essential businesses were all closed. Beaches, parks and leisure facilities were closed, and people were meant to stay within 1km of their house, but this was relaxed for exercise.
Just to recap, Israel was quick to respond when COVID-19 first broke out. The lockdown in March was strict and unequivocal. People were only permitted to travel 100 metres from their houses including for exercise. The result was that COVID-19 was all but snuffed out by May and the country rapidly re-opened.
From here, things unravelled quickly, and within a few months Israel went from being a shining example, to one of the countries with the highest rates of infection in the world. This peaked at over 9000 new cases on 2 October. The WHO website now sports some pretty good visual analysis if you want to start running country by country comparisons.
Four weeks of lockdown seemed to have an almost miraculous impact on new cases in Israel with daily figures now sitting below 2000. This is highly convenient for a country under pressure to re-open, and many will question the completeness of the picture this data provides.
From yesterday, pre-schools were allowed to re-open and it is hoped that older school children can return within a few weeks. This is something of an under- statement. The sanity and wellbeing of almost everyone I know still stuck in the dark hells of online learning, depends on it.
There is now no restriction on travel and beaches and parks re-opened yesterday. People are also allowed to meet indoors up to a maximum of 10 people. In a flagrant disregard of the rules however, many Orthodox schools fully reopened on Sunday, against Government Regulations.
Anti-Netanyahu protests have also sprung up again, after restriction orders prohibiting protests expired and PM Netanyahu is back to firefighting discontent on a number of fronts.
I was keen to get out and about and see what the mood was like in Jerusalem. Approaching the Old City from Salah Ad’Din Street there was the reassuring happy bustle of open shops and people going about their lives. Apart from the mask wearing you could be fooled into forgetting about the pandemic.
In the Old City however, things still felt deadly quiet and that applied to all quarters. I ambled around expecting to find groups gathering or people not wearing masks, but it wasn’t so. Almost everyone not only had a mask on but was wearing it correctly and this was outside in the heat including walking in families or with friends.
Later, I noticed that the municipality had put up signs encouraging mask wearing and I also heard about someone being arrested (rather than fined!) for not wearing a mask. I was impressed by the crowd compliance and felt guilted into keeping my mask on even when I was puffing up a steep slope with no-one around me.
Religious sites such as the Holy Sepulchre and the Western Wall reopened yesterday, and I was interested to see what rules were being applied there. Looking down on the Western Wall from above, it was an unusually orderly scene with partitions separating people into small groups. I also came across several individuals praying from vantage points overlooking the Western Wall rather than seeking to get too close. This all felt pretty measured and responsible.
Many of the shops and cafes were still closed across all quarters and sadly they may remain so until tourists are permitted back in. The trouble with there being no business, is that you are suddenly a day’s wage for someone if you do want to buy something. I stopped to buy some cheap sunglasses (why is another story) and simply told the man what I was willing to pay for them. It was a fair price but without the usual bartering dance.
Heading out of Jaffa Gate and along Jaffa Street things remained modest. Cafes were only open for take-away services and many shops continued to serve people from their doorways. The tram went past around half-full and with everyone wearing masks.
Walking around recharged my energy for the city. Being able to move freely again is a huge benefit and it is sadly not a freedom that everyone in Jerusalem knows. I am left feeling torn between wanting life to go back to normal, and knowing that a careful re-opening is the only way to prevent further lockdowns. Inshallah we are over the worst of things already, but only time will tell!