The enduring trauma of Covid memories
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
It’s June 19, 2021. The indoor mask mandate in Israel ended this week. It still feels strange to be in a crowded room, or on an elevator or train without a mask. Just a week ago when one boarded the train they had to wear a mask and ushers would come and ask them to wear it correctly. People also couldn’t eat or drink, even though on planes masks could be removed for eating.
It appears children in school also no longer have to wear masks. For weeks many people hadn’t been observing the indoor mask mandate anyway and in many offices they probably never did. I remember meetings at one defense company where we wore masks around but when we sat around a table, with plastic dividers, and ate and drank without masks and the presenter didn’t wear a mask. This is how things were. One senior defense official I met a bit ago, when masks were mandatory, only wore it until he entered a meeting.
That’s how it was. Masks were worn around the chin. Outside people often wore them around chins. Israel lifted the outdoor mask mandate on April 17 and fully re-opened schools.
It had been a roller coaster of a year. It’s hard to remember how it began. When I flew to the US in late February 2020 some people already had masks. When I returned to Israel in early March there were already confusing regulations about needing to quarantine for 14 days. It was basically on our honor if we wanted to quarantine. Soon, however, scenes in Israel became more chaotic. People who violated quarantine would be tracked and police and others involved, along with the Health Ministry. But much remained chaotic. I had a friend come in June 2021 from Thailand and he was supposed to quarantine and didn’t.
Back in the beginning the first lockdowns were harsh. They came in slowly. Restaurants closed and many would only briefly re-open over the summer, before being closed until March 2021. Large stores and malls were closed. IKEA was always on a roller coaster ride as well, it reopened in late April 2020, one of the first major stores of its kind to open. It was harshly critiqued because many similar stores could not reopen. In November 2020 it would re-open early despite health ministry concerns.
The first lockdown was harsh. Streets were deserted. Only a few places were open, such as grocery stores. We had eased into it, as closures slowly spread. Bars shuttered. Then we were told we shouldn’t travel and then told we had to remain within 100 meters of our home. At the stores we had to stand in socially distant lines, waiting to go in as only a certain number of people were allowed in the stores. Beaches and parks were closed. The military and police set up checkpoints.
That was the first lockdown. But eventually it eased and then many regulations were removed. When people were allowed to go out again there were temperature checks at the entrance to most stores. Soon those would be replaced by self-checks at the entrance where you put your hand next to a temperature gauge.
There was a lot of confusion about why some things were open and not others. For instance two outdoor bars at the First Station in Jerusalem seemed to be the first to open when they could and last to close when regulations returned. Lockdowns affected some grades and schools, but not others.
Overall the new regulations also meant it was hard to ever sit and eat. During one trip we found out you could quietly order food to go but not eat near the restaurant so as to not alert authorities that the restaurant was doing takeaway. We also found a secretive schwarma place open in Abu Ghosh. I found a hummous place in Tel Aviv that would deliver to a public bench.
Coffee shops were mostly closed and Aroma began making people order online and then pick up. One Aroma on Emek Refaim had a to-go order window but then was forced to close it. Eventually during the lockdowns that continued on and off into 2021, some restaurants were issued several colorful chairs so people could sit outside. That enabled restaurants like Pinati to have patrons sit outside but not inside.
Regulations about how many people could be in stores were annoying. Searching for Legos meant that the Lego store in Rehovot could only let one person in at a time. Once, going to a guitar store, meant we had to wait 20 minutes because only five customers could be inside at a time. In many cases we got used to going online and ordering things, like our Weber grill, and then picking it up.
The regulations about distancing in markets were heinous in the beginning, with people spaced so that a line would wrap far away from the register. Later these were relaxed and people could go into stores unregulated, without space controls or numbers of customers. But other places appeared to be regulated differently, so that only a few people could enter at a time. Some stores blocked their entrances and you could only do pick-up.
Many places tried to do what they could to remain quietly open. In the beginning of the pandemic I found out I could go shopping in Beit Hanina, where most stores pretended to be closed but quietly let people in. The same occurred in Yarka. At a local coffee shop I found out I could quietly go inside and order, and then get the coffee to go, even though it was supposed to be closed.
When restaurants did re-open it was a relief to be able to sit without a mask. However much had changed. Over the year some places that had been open when the measures were relaxed in the summer of 2020, had spaced their seating according to regulations, so you had a lot more room to sit. In general that meant making reservations was more essential.
Reservations also became key to going to parks and the zoo, so you had to reserve long ahead of time for the limited number of spaces. The fact the borders were closed and then even the airport in early 2021, meant that vacationing in Israel became difficult because of the high demand. With airports and borders closed, the country seemed more isolated.
Travel was always complex when borders were opened. A trip to Dubai in November required a test before leaving, filling out a health form, and then more tests before coming back. When I flew to the US in the spring of 2021, a PCR test to leave was required and also to return, which was difficult because the test results take days in the US.
When vaccinations began in December 2020 there were also conflicting details about getting a vaccination pass. This “green passport” system included an app one could download. Ostensibly this was supposed to enable you to go to certain venues like restaurants. For a while some restaurants did ask for the “green passport” or evidence of vaccination. But soon that was discarded by June 2021. Even when you did show it, it wasn’t clear the managers just glanced at it. I used it a few times, to go to the Barrel Bar and Sushi Moon in Tel Aviv.
These numerous complex regulations and changing policies in Israel leave a lasting trauma. The feeling of being herded from place to place and never knowing what places might be open the next week, left one not taking anything for granted.