Don Heller and Anne Simon at a wedding in Israel earlier this month. (Photo/Courtesy Heller)
Don Heller and Anne Simon at a wedding in Israel earlier this month. (Photo/Courtesy Heller)

S.F. couple’s tourist nightmare: catching Covid instead of a flight out of Israel

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This piece first appeared in Haaretz and is reprinted with permission.

Donald Heller and Anne Simon had been talking for years about taking a trip to Israel together. An invitation to attend a wedding in the Holy Land provided the couple from San Francisco with the perfect excuse and so, when Israel finally reopened its borders to tourism on March 1 — nearly two years after the first coronavirus lockdown — they quickly booked their fights.

The plan was to spend the first few days of their 10-day trip in Jerusalem and the rest of the time in Tel Aviv.

What hadn’t been planned was that Anne would test positive for Covid the day before they were scheduled to fly back home and that Donald would catch it a few days later.

The United States is among the few countries in the world that still requires passengers to provide a negative Covid test result before boarding their flight. But since about 20 percent of all international visitors to Israel come from the United States, making it the single largest source of incoming tourism to the country, a disproportionately large share of those traveling to Israel these days are affected by this rule.

And because the United States requires that Covid tests be taken within 24 hours of flying, that doesn’t give those testing positive much time to prepare for the unfortunate scenario of being stuck in a foreign country for an indefinite amount of time, as this California couple was.

And their case is not that unusual.

According to the Israeli Health Ministry, since Israel reopened its borders, more than 3,800 tourists have tested positive for Covid while in the country. Assuming that around one in five are Americans, it can also be assumed that many hundreds of tourists have been forced to delay their return trips home because of the virus.

That should come as no surprise given that versions of the highly contagious omicron variant are still spreading through Israel. Indeed, according to the head of one of Israel’s largest incoming tourism companies, who asked that their firm’s name not be published, as many as 20 percent of his clients have had to extend their stays in the country after testing positive for the virus.

What are American tourists who suddenly discover they have Covid supposed to do? Where do they need to isolate? For how long? And what documents do they need to obtain so they can eventually fly home, and how do they get them?

Not speaking or reading Hebrew, there is no way we could have done this on our own.

Based on the experiences of Donald and Anne, getting answers to these questions is almost impossible if you don’t have Hebrew-speaking friends in Israel willing to help you navigate the bureaucracy. “Not speaking or reading Hebrew, there is no way we could have done this on our own,” said Donald, who retired in February after a career in academics that finished with 6½ years at University of San Francisco (where he was an education professor, a provost and vice president of academic affairs and a vice president of operations).

Fortunately for him and his partner, both in their early 60s, their symptoms were relatively mild and they did not need any medical intervention.

A day after Anne received her test results, she was contacted by a representative of the Israeli Health Ministry. That person told her that she would receive a phone call within the next 24 hours from a doctor at Bikur Rofeh, a private clinic that services patients who have no Israeli health insurance. But no phone call was received in that time, as promised.

During their initial exchange with the Health Ministry representative, the couple did not receive any information whatsoever about where they should isolate, or for how long. Seeing that little help was forthcoming, Donald used his phone to find a short-term rental on his own. They spent half a day resting at a hotel while waiting for the rental to become available, and only later learned that tourists with Covid are not allowed to stay at hotels. The Health Ministry representative had never informed them of that, they said.

During their period in isolation, Donald and Anne would receive several emails from the Health Ministry and Bikur Rofeh informing them of their diagnosis and eventually letting them know — after seven days had passed for each of them — that they no longer needed to isolate.

However, all of these emails were in Hebrew and none contained any information about what, if any, documents they would need to present at the airport in order to board their flight back to San Francisco.

The Health Ministry’s English-language website also turned out to be of little help. A section titled “Leaving Israel” offered the following information about what people in their situation needed to do: “Confirmed Covid-19 cases or individuals who are required to stay in isolation at the time of arrival at the airport or border crossing will not be allowed to leave Israel and will be subject to penalty according to law.”

It referred travelers with further questions to the website of the Population and Immigration Authority, which is all in Hebrew.

And what about the Tourism Ministry website? A link at the top does direct tourists to a page dedicated to coronavirus regulations in Israel. But they need to scroll all the way down to the bottom to obtain the number of an emergency call center for tourists who test positive for Covid.

When contacted, a call center representative was unable to answer a few basic questions about where tourists should isolate and suggested contacting the Health Ministry.

Travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, Dec. 22, 2021. (Photo/JTA-Flash90)
Travelers at Ben Gurion Airport, Dec. 22, 2021. (Photo/JTA-Flash90)

With the help of their Israeli friends, Donald and Anne would eventually learn that once they completed their isolation, they would receive official recovery certificates that would allow them to return home. Those certificates, however, would only be issued once they had spoken on the phone to a doctor who had determined they were indeed fully recovered.

Getting a doctor to call them proved to be yet another major challenge. Trying to find out why Donald and Anne hadn’t been called after they each completed their isolation period, their Israeli friends discovered that the Bikur Rofeh doctors will only call an Israeli phone number — which the couple did not have. Like many tourists, they used WhatsApp for phone calls while in the country. The Bikur Rofeh doctors said they could not put calls through on WhatsApp.

So in order for a doctor to be able to speak with and issue their recovery certificates, they had to devise an alternative form of communication.

Here’s what they did: Their Israeli friends used two cellphones — one on a call with the Bikur Rofeh doctor and the other on a WhatsApp call to Donald and Anne  — and placed those phones side-by-side on speaker mode. This is how they were eventually pronounced free to return home.

Asked for comment, the Health Ministry said in a statement that its English-language “Ramzor” website “contains all the necessary information.”

The statement continued: “According to the website, a person who tests positive and has begun their isolation is required to call the Health Ministry hotline, and the hotline will direct them to a Bikur Rofeh doctor who will speak to them and see to their release, according to the rules, once the isolation period is over.”

A thorough search of the website, however, uncovered no such information.

The Tourism Ministry, meanwhile, said in a statement that incoming tourists are invited to a booth located in the baggage hall at Ben Gurion Airport, where information about the rules that apply to tourists who test positive for Covid is available.

“It should be noted that all issues related to incoming tourists and the coronavirus are the responsibility of the Health Ministry,” the statement added. “The Tourism Ministry acts as a conduit, referring tourists to the Health Ministry website and call center for updated information.

Judy Maltz

Judy Maltz covers the Jewish world and writes features about Israeli society for Haaretz’s English edition. Judy began her career at Haaretz 30 years ago as an economic reporter. She was among the founding editors of the English-language print edition.