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Israel Begins Phased Reopening To Citizens With Proof Of 2 COVID-19 Shots

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Israel is giving the world a glimpse of what life might be like as the pandemic lessens. It has vaccinated a higher portion of its citizens than any other country. About a third have had both doses, and this week Israel started opening new doors to people who've had their shots. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports that includes places like gyms and the theater.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Many businesses in Israel still aren't ready to open, but it's opening night at the first Israeli indoor theater to put on a play after months of lockdown. Adam Chenkin, an usher at Jerusalem's Khan Theater, checks tickets and something called a green pass.

ADAM CHENKIN: Yeah, just taking their green passport, it's called, to check that they have been vaccinated or that they were sick and then got better.

ESTRIN: Israelis one week after their second shot or recovered from the virus can print out a government-issued green pass with their ID number and a QR code. This is all very new. The usher doesn't have a scanner, so he holds up the pass and asks the mostly senior-age theatergoers to recite their ID numbers by heart to make sure no one's cheating.

CHENKIN: Just to see if it's them (laughter)...

ESTRIN: Oh.

CHENKIN: ...To make sure.

ESTRIN: To make sure that they're not...

CHENKIN: Exactly.

ESTRIN: ...Trying to use someone else's green pass.

CHENKIN: Yes, because it's - you know, it's without a picture.

ESTRIN: If you don't have a green pass, you can't see the show. Tirtsa Posklinsky and Orit Kamir come early.

TIRTSA POSKLINSKY: We feel as pioneers.

ORIT KAMIR: I mean, it doesn't matter what they're performing. We'd come because it's been way too long since we were here.

ESTRIN: Do you feel safer knowing that everyone in the audience will be with a green pass?

POSKLINSKY: That's essential.

KAMIR: Yeah, it would have been worrisome if we had to sit in a closed theater with lots of people breathing at us if we didn't know they both got both vaccines.

POSKLINSKY: We've been waiting for people to take responsibility and do that.

ESTRIN: Not everyone has. Vaccinations are available to all Israeli adults, but 40% of those in their 20s haven't done it. Some think they're healthy and don't need it. Others have heard false rumors of bad side effects. But the promise of a green pass is a popular incentive. You can't get into a hotel, theater or gym without one. At a vaccination center in the city of Petah Tikva, Adi Shir nervously waits in line.

ADI SHIR: The only reason that I'm going to get this vaccine is because I want to go to the gym.

ESTRIN: So it works. The pressure works.

SHIR: Yes, the pressure works.

ESTRIN: We stop by a nearby gym and watch a young man, still not fully vaccinated, get turned back at the entrance while 50-year-old Ophir Aniel finishes his first weight routine in a year.

OPHIR ANIEL: I feel safe for now. I don't know what will be in two years. I want to live now.

UDI BEN-MOSHE: Next door, there are hardly any vaccines for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. In Israel, the issue is that some Israelis refuse to get vaccinated. One lawyer representing vaccine refusers says some employers threatened to fire them or put them on unpaid leave until they agreed to get vaccinated. There was a similar dilemma at the theatre. Director Udi Ben-Moshe says his stage manager and some actors didn't want to get vaccinated, so he pleaded.

BEN-MOSHE: For us - good for us. We want to work. We want to go back and work. Please do it for us.

ESTRIN: And he says they agreed. Now, an hour before curtain, the director is worrying about something else.

BEN-MOSHE: I was scared to death tonight. The audience, first with that funny mask on their faces - do they still believe in theater? Will it still work, this magic?

ESTRIN: He had nothing to worry about. The audience is laughing through their masks. The play is Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" translated into Hebrew - a light comedy, just what the audience needed. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.