For the past three months, families have been kept apart by social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic. As hard as it is for those separated by a few miles, or across several states, it is excruciating for Atlanta Jews who have family members in Israel. They not only cannot get into a car and eventually stand an acceptable distance from their loved ones, there are few flights to Israel, and once there, unless they have Israeli citizenship, they are not allowed into the country.
As of mid-June, even those holding Israeli passports must quarantine themselves for two weeks upon entering the country.
Steve and Gita Berman had been planning to fly this month to Israel as one of their daughters is about to give birth to her third child. “Gita and I are very troubled that we may not be able to get there to celebrate the birth of our fifth grandchild,” Steve Berman said.
“While we are resolved to likely not be there for the birth of our grandchild, we do want to be able to get over there as quickly as possible just in case anything goes wrong with the delivery. The really unsettling thought for me is that something could happen (related to the birth or otherwise) and we couldn’t get there to help.”
Many Atlanta parents and grandparents are accustomed to flying to Israel twice a year to see their families. “The last time we were in Israel was for a [granddaughter’s] bat mitzvah in November,” said Bernie Wolfberg, speaking for himself and his wife, Laura. “We thought we would go again for Sukkot, but we don’t know what’s going to happen. We Skype once a week, but it’s not the same.”
Eve and David Adler had planned to visit their son Jonathan and his family for Pesach, but that trip was canceled due to the pandemic. “We’ve never gone this long without seeing the kids,” Eve Adler said, referring to Jonathan, his wife and three children. “We’re looking at going for Sukkot.” But, for now, that’s all up in the air.”
Of course, Atlanta individuals and families are not the only ones unable to travel to Israel right now. For years, synagogues and agencies such as the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta have sponsored group travel to Israel. All of those trips are now on hold as well. When non-Israelis are allowed into the country again, Yael Golan, director of the Southern region of the Israel Ministry of Tourism told the AJT, the group missions “will look different.”
Golan explained that once those missions restart, the groups will be smaller. “But unless there’s a second and third wave [of the pandemic], we will eventually go back to normal,” Golan predicts.
Normal is still a long way off. While United Airlines continued to fly from Newark, N.J., to Israel during the pandemic, it will only restart flights from San Francisco July 10. After cutting all service to Israel from the United States in mid-March, Delta Air Lines restarted its flights from New York’s JFK International Airport June 3. Those flights operate on Saturday nights, Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays.
“Delta continues to evaluate its summer schedule and is adjusting as needed, based on customer demand, government travel directives and CDC guidelines,” said Delta spokesman Drake Castañeda. Passengers are required to wear masks and only 50 to 60 percent of the seats are expected to be sold, to ensure proper spacing during the flights, Delta stated.
El Al, Israel’s national airlines, halted all its regular commercial flights since late March because of the coronavirus. This month it announced that it has canceled all flights through July. Already struggling financially, the airlines is now in negotiations with the Israeli government and might be nationalized.
Golan said travel to and from Israel is an “ongoing changing situation.” In an early June webinar, she noted that Israel was one of the first countries to respond to the outbreak of the pandemic, requiring quarantine for all arriving travelers as of March 10. On March 18, foreigners were no longer allowed to enter the country, with the exception of those immigrating there, and those attending long-term study programs. The government started requiring sheltering in place for all its citizens inside Israel March 19, and only began to relax those regulations a month later.
Since the loosening of those restrictions, including reopening the schools, Israel has experienced a marked increase in COVID-19 cases. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the citizens for not wearing masks in public nor social distancing properly, and as of June 18, refused to reopen any more of the economy.
Still, because Israel has overall kept its case numbers down, it is one of a few low-infection countries that are negotiating about opening up two-way tourism. Among those countries is Cyprus, where on June 9, its first tourist flight to arrive in nearly three months came from Israel that day the island country also welcomed tourists from Greece and Bulgaria. Other countries considering tourism – which Golan refers to as “green,” as in “go” – are Austria, Australia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Greece, Montenegro, New Zealand and Singapore.
After a spike in cases in Israel in June, however, at least one of those countries – Montenegro – has removed Israelis from the foreigners allowed into the country.
For now, the United States is a “red” country, for “stop,” Golan said, because of the still rising number of COVID-19 cases in this country. Perhaps trying to provide a more optimistic outlook, Golan said tourism from the United States is expected to return as of Sept. 1. In any case, she recommends that Atlantans go to the Ministry of Tourism’s website for updates, www.Israel.travel/.
Berman pointed out that his “kids” in Israel had planned an August trip to the United States before the pandemic outbreak. “That won’t be happening at this point,” he said. “This whole thing has lots of sad and somewhat depressing stories and they all pale compared to the person who has lost a loved one to COVID or who has lost their job. But the inability to celebrate these special moments together are also heartbreaking and sad. We will survive this. I just hope it isn’t too far out when travel becomes less dangerous. I really am looking forward to meeting our [new] grandchild.”
Even when international travel opens up, another possible obstacle for many will be the much higher costs for travel insurance. “All the tourism boards are talking about this,” Golan said. “Prices will go up,” and many insurance companies, she added, won’t cover COVID-19.