COVID-19 vaccine - Israel
© AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov
Ministers of the high-level coronavirus cabinet voted Monday to expand the so-called Green Pass entry limitations to education, health, and social welfare institutions, a government statement said.

Applying the system to schools, hospitals and welfare facilities means employees — including teachers, doctors, nurses and caregivers — will only be granted entry to their workplaces if they have documentation showing they are vaccinated against COVID-19, have recovered from the virus, or have tested negative for the virus within the past 72 hours.

The expanded rules, approved by a select panel of ministers tasked with forming virus policy, will also apply to workers in all places where customers are required to abide by the Green Pass system and expands on existing restrictions.

Ahead of the school year that starts Wednesday, the cabinet also voted to accept a recommendation to ease restrictions in the so-called "Red Cities," where infection rates are high.

Under the original government plan, students in red cities — those with a high rate of new cases and a high positivity rate — in grades 8-12 would only study in person if 70 percent of their grade level is fully vaccinated.

But officials agreed on Monday to count those who have received a single dose in the tally, making it easier for schools to open in-person learning in high morbidity areas. As of September 30, the model will shift to require that 70% have received two doses.

There are currently more than 50 towns and cities currently classified as "red" by the Education Ministry standards, including Rishon Lezion, Ashdod, Netanya, and Rehovot.

As of Monday evening, 47% of 12- to 15-year-olds nationwide had received at least one dose, while 31% had received both. Among those 16-19 years old, 81% had received at least one dose, and 70% were fully vaccinated.

Western Wall prayers

Ministers also approved a plan for holding the traditional selichot prayers at the Western Wall under COVID restrictions. The prayers, which are said in Jewish communities all over the world, are part of the services leading up to and during the High Holiday period. Usually, tens of thousands attend the Western Wall services.

Under the terms of the plan, no more than 8,000 worshipers will be permitted to attend the Western Wall prayers at any one time and they will need to be divided into 18 capsules. Face masks will need to be worn at all times and the rules will be strictly enforced.

The cabinet statement noted that a Western Wall rabbinical ruling said it was permissible to take part in online selichot prayers.

Officials at the wall would be enforcing the mask mandate and limits and would be handing out information packages encouraging people to take part from home.

The cabinet also approved the deployment of Israel police to help ensure crowd control as worshippers depart into Jerusalem's Old City.

Current Health Ministry guidelines ban open-air gatherings of more than 5,000 people for mass events like concerts, with celebrations capped at 500 people each. Last year attendance at the selichot prayers was also restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After reducing daily infections to barely more than a dozen a day in mid-June Israel has experienced a resurgence of COVID-19 infections driven by the highly contagious Delta variant that has pushed the daily caseload to thousands with 6,576 cases diagnosed on Sunday.

Standoff with teachers

To curb the wave of infections the government has introduced restrictions on public gatherings, including enforcing the Green Pass.

By including education workers in the Green Pass system and restricting unvaccinated teachers' access to schools, the government may be heading into a confrontation with teachers' unions.

There is already a standoff brewing as the Education Ministry intends to require all unvaccinated teachers to pay out of pocket for virus tests every two or three days if they want to continue working and has indicated that those that don't could be put on unpaid leave.

Ran Erez, chairman of the Teachers Association, said the plan to "prevent the entry of educational staff to their work is inexplicable in every way."

In remarks to the Kan public broadcaster on Monday, he reiterated plans to take legal action against the government decision as long as it is not enforced against all public sector employees evenly.

In the meantime, the Education Ministry has ordered regional administrators to compile lists of teachers who are not vaccinated in order to prepare for the possible need of backup staff to replace them, Channel 13 reported Sunday.