By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel reopened swathes of its economy including malls and leisure facilities on Sunday, with the government saying the start of a return to routine was enabled by COVID-19 vaccines administered to almost half the population.
Shops were open to all. But access to gyms, hotels and theatres was limited to people with a "Green Pass": those who have had both doses of the vaccine more than a week prior, or recovered from the disease with presumed immunity.
Pass-holders could prove their status by presenting a vaccination certificate or downloading a Health Ministry app linked to their medical files.
Coming exactly a year after Israel's first documented coronavirus case, Sunday's easing of curbs was part of a government plan to open the economy more widely next month, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is up for reelection.
"We are the first country in the world that is reviving itself thanks to the millions of vaccines we brought in," he tweeted. "Vaccinated? Get the Green Pass and get back to life."
Mask-wearing and social-distancing were still in force. Dancing was barred at banquet halls. Synagogues, mosques or churches were required to halve their normal congregation sizes.
Elementary schoolchildren and pupils in the last two years of high school resumed classes in towns with contagion rates under control. Middle-school pupils were still home-learning, however, prompting some to stage a sit-down protest in a mall.
"I haven't been in school in a year," said 14-year-old demonstrator Rotem Bachar. "How does it make sense to open malls up to crowds, while we can't attend class if even they are capped at 15 to 20 pupils and have other precautions?"
Israel has administered at least one dose of the Pfizer Inc vaccine to more than 46% of its 9 million population, the Health Ministry says. The ministry said on Saturday that the risk of illness from COVID-19 dropped 95.8% among people who received both shots.
Israel has logged more than 740,000 cases and 5,500 deaths from COVID-19, drawing criticism of Netanyahu's sometimes patchy enforcement of three national lockdowns. The government has pledged that there will not be a fourth.
But Nachman Ash, a physician in charge of the country's pandemic response, told Army Radio that another lockdown "is still possible ... Half of the population is still not immune."
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jan Harvey and Frances Kerry)