Israel begins exit from third virus lockdown

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Israeli barbershops and some other businesses reopened Sunday as the country began easing its third coronavirus lockdown Sunday amid an aggressive vaccination campaign.

Early Friday, the government announced it was lifting some restrictions imposed since December, when the country saw a rise in Covid-19 infections.

Jerusalem barber Eli Aroas was among those re-opening on Sunday morning, the start of the working week.

"I slowly notified all my customers that we are back at work," the Jerusalem barber said.

"We have a working schedule and orders, and we hope this would be the end of all this saga."

While shops were not formally permitted to open, many small stores were making transactions with clients standing outside.

Since December, more than 3.4 million out of Israel's nine-million population have received an coronavirus vaccine jab in what is seen as the world's fastest per-capita vaccination campaign.

Despite the inoculations, Israel has been registering a daily average of 6,500 new Covid-19 cases, down from around 8,000 in mid-January.

Sarit Reuven was shopping for shoes in downtown Jerusalem, just in time for her son's wedding on Monday.

"There is a feeling of optimism in the air, I think we can already see the end," she said. "I hope this will have been the last lockdown."

A strict nationwide lockdown in force since December 27 has been extended four times to combat the infection rate, but January was the deadliest month yet, with more than 1,000 Covid fatalities.

But as of Sunday, Israelis were no longer restricted to within one kilometre (1000 yards) of their homes.

Hair and beauty salons are allowed to have one person providing a service to one client, while and nature reserves and national parks reopened.

Hotels remain shuttered and restaurants will be allowed to cater only for takeaways, while guesthouses can host members of the same nuclear family only.

A suspension of international flights will remain in place until February 20, along with the closure of Israel's land borders.

Israelis stranded abroad will be able to return on special flights.

The cabinet was due to meet later Sunday to plan the further relaxing of limitations, especially the educational system, set to reopen Tuesday morning.

The government also increased fines for businesses or schools operating in violation of the restrictions.

Many ultra-Orthodox institutions had opened during the lockdown in defiance of instructions, and some frustrated entrepreneurs have announced they will reopen their businesses even before the lockdown is entirely lifted.

Israel has registered a total of more than 687,000 cases of Covid-19, including over 5,000 deaths.