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Sun, sand and surf: Israelis take a splash as beaches reopen

Beach-goers sit in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv as beaches open for the first time after two months of confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Beach-goers sit in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv as beaches open for the first time after two months of confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic JACK GUEZ AFP
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Tel Aviv (AFP)

After a weeks-long lockdown and amid a blistering heatwave, there was only one sensible thing to do Wednesday in Israel's lifestyle capital, the Mediterranean seaside city of Tel Aviv.

"This is the first time I've been in the water for months, because of the coronavirus," said Daria, after diving into the azure waters for a refreshing splash in the surf.

"It's the best feeling in the world."

Israel's beaches had been shuttered since early April over COVID-19, but with the mercury topping 39 degrees centigrade (102 degrees fahrenheit), Daria didn't need much encouragement on the first day of their official reopening.

Neither did thousands of others. All around her people sunbathed in deckchairs, children built sand castles and youngsters played paddleball, all celebrating their newly-regained liberty.

The beach closure, part of a wider lockdown impacting most facets of Israeli public life, was initially met with broad social acceptance, with the cool weather helping keep people indoors.

But as recent weeks saw a gradual easing of restrictions and the advent of scorching summer heat, many Israelis didn't wait for the official green light to take a plunge.

On Saturday, Israel's beaches already saw thousands basking in the sun and enjoying the water, in violation of the rules and in the absence of lifeguards.

Wednesday's opening of 124 of Israel's beaches, however, marked the official, guilt-free beginning of the country's bathing season.

- A second wave? -

Beach attendants in neon orange t-shirts were busy arranging deckchairs and parasols in the sand, spacing them out to comply with new distancing regulations, as beachgoers looked on, enjoying a morning breeze.

Daria, 30, her back decorated with colourful tattoos, was at the sea at dawn.

"Because of the heat I came to the beach at 5:45am," she told AFP. "I was looking forward to this moment."

Dalia Cohen, 72, who also made an early excursion to enjoy the sea, said with a smile: "Two months without swimming because of the coronavirus -- I felt I was perishing."

A view of the packed beach made clear the new challenge for authorities: to enforce social distancing measures.

People are still required to stay two metres away from one another, and groups are limited to six, according to government regulations seeking to prevent a second wave of the coronavirus.

Israel, a country of around nine million, recorded nearly 16,700 cases of the virus and 278 deaths -- significantly lower rates than the United States and many European countries.

The pandemic hit hardest in Israel's ultra-Orthodox, or haradem, cities and neighbourhoods.

"Tel Aviv is different because there are no haredims, but we have many tourists who also brought the virus," said Teah Harel, 29.

With the sun back and beaches open again, life was almost perfect for many in Tel Aviv.

Almost. The next milestone now eagerly awaited is the re-opening of restaurants and bars, scheduled for May 27, to give the liberal city back its summer spirit.

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