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Last February, Israeli health minister Yuli Edelstein announced that Israelis would need to show they had been vaccinated, or had recovered from Covid-19, before they could enter shopping malls, pubs or restaurants.
Described by Edelstein as “the first step back to an almost normal life”, the so-called green pass QR code could be downloaded by smartphone app, or printed from a website, or received by text, email or even letter.
The QR codes were then checked at the door of the pub or restaurant; though, according to the regulations, people were also required to present an ID card as well, although this was often not enforced.
Glitches were common in the first few weeks. Many users struggled to download the passes, while mobiles often crashed. Meanwhile, the app only worked with Israeli-registered phones, so overseas numbers could not download it.
In addition to the launch hitches, cyber experts raised questions about security. Once the initial bugs were ironed out, however, the system ran relatively smoothly and problems were few and far between.
Checks at the door took less than a minute per person, with most customers happy to co-operate. Within weeks, people became used to it in the same way they had previously become used to wearing masks in public.
Hospitality venues welcomed the QR code as a sign that they had reached the beginning of the end of the lockdown and, most importantly, as a way of getting paying customers through the doors again.
The green pass was initially valid for six months from one week after a person’s second vaccination jab. In May, however, the Israeli government, then led by Binyamin Nethanayu, extended it until the end of the year.
Children who had recovered from coronavirus were also able to enter the same places as their parents without being tested, once their parents had downloaded a green pass for them that appeared on the parents’ phones.
People caught trying to forge passes faced criminal charges. Enforcement, though, was a problem, since the police did not have enough officers to check compliance. Fines were issued, along with threats of closure for repeat offenders.
Restaurants were able to seat three-quarters of their usual numbers, with a cap of 100 and tables two metres apart. Passholders could also have a drink at a bar, but with an empty seat between patrons, unless they lived together.
Eating and drinking in outdoor spaces did not require a green pass. With Israelis eager to embrace the post-pandemic reality, the country’s restaurants and bars were soon packed, but then a new problem arose.
During the lockdowns restaurants were forced to shut down or shift to takeout-only and had put their workers on unpaid leave, or fired them. When they reopened it was difficult to re-hire staff.
Many restaurant staff on furlough were eligible for unemployment benefits that were nearly equal to normal earnings, and those benefits were extended until the end of June in a bid to provide an economic safety net.
Many restaurants had to cut their opening hours, or the number of days they opened. From December to March demand for kitchen staff rose 36 per cent, demand for waiters and barmen rose 208 per cent, and demand for cooks 218 per cent.
Rami Garor, the head of Israel’s Employment Service Bureau, complained that the extended unemployment benefits transformed a “safety net” into a “barrier” preventing workers from returning to the labour force.
“We are missing some 40,000 to 50,000 workers,” said Shai Berman, CEO of the Israel Restaurants and Bars Association. “Restaurants need at least an 80 per cent capacity to be economically viable.”
Before Covid-19, the restaurant industry, including cafes and bars, employed some 200,000. That number dropped to between 30,000 and 60,000. By the end of April, it was back up to 100,000.
The number of restaurants, bars, cafes and food stalls fell from 14,000 to 10,000 at the height of the pandemic, he said. “Even more will shut if not enough is done to get people back to work.”
“The pandemic caused havoc for many,” Alon Kedem, the owner of the Matilda restaurant in Tel Aviv, told the Times of Israel, complaining about the lack of staff.
“I am here 22 years and I don’t intend to give up just because of one coronavirus year. But if I had just started, I’d definitely rethink my way forward. It would be easier for me to let go and look in other direction.”
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