1. In light of new recommendations by the health authorities, what additional steps should Orthodox communities be taking to slow the spread of COVID-19?
Social distancing. In addition to not shaking hands, the CDC and local authorities are now recommending that we maintain a healthy distance from each other.
In New York State, events of 500 or more individuals must be cancelled or postponed, effective March 13, at 5 pm. Gatherings of less than 500 individuals are required to cut capacity by 50% of their building’s capacity, with exceptions for schools, hospitals, public buildings, mass transit, grocery stores and retail stores. In other words, if a shul is approved for occupancy of 200 people, it may now only be occupied by 100 people. Finally, only medically necessary visits will be allowed at nursing homes.
New Jersey has recommended the cancellation of all gatherings of 250 or more individuals.
Ohio has closed all public and private schools for the next few weeks and will limit visitation to nursing homes.
3. Should shuls and community organizations cancel their upcoming events or gatherings such as annual dinners, weekly kiddushim, seudos shlishis and various social gatherings?
These are halachically discretionary events. Given the current circumstances, we urge a shul’s Rav or Rebbe to strongly reconsider having them, especially if it entails people sitting close to each other.
4. Does that mean shuls should close?
Tefilah betzibur and krias haTorah are definitive requirements and an important component of Jewish life. A community may reach a threshold of infectious activity that necessitates shul closings, but few communities are at this point now. However, all shuls should make every effort to create circumstances that enable social distancing. For example, on weekdays, perhaps adjoining sections can be opened to spread mispalelim over a larger area; perhaps a larger building auditorium can be temporarily used; minyanim times can be altered to reduce traffic, etc. Agudath Israel also recommends that all shuls redouble their cleaning procedures, especially on high-touch surfaces like door knobs. Soap and hand sanitizers should be made readily available.
A shul that can only function in a manner that would force its congregants to be tightly squeezed together should ask a shailah about its continued operation. It should also consult intra-communally to not unduly increase capacity on other shuls.
5. Should Yeshivos close?
In an emergency meeting held on March 12, the Vaad Roshei Yeshiva of Torah Umesorah advised against uniformly closing schools in areas where public schools have not been closed (see statement here). “The koach haTorah generated by tinokos shel bais rabban is inestimable, and is urgently needed in times like these.” Moreover, children appear to be at decreased risk for catching and transmitting COVID-19. If the situation becomes one of immediate sakanah, of course, this may change, but this was the guidance of the rabbanim based on the circumstances now. We will keep you advised if there are updates on this policy going forward.
Even if schools are open, common sense precautions should be carefully taken. For example:
· Higher density classrooms should be moved to larger auditoriums or multipurpose rooms.
· Gatherings and assemblies should be cancelled.
· Schools should have a physician to consult with if questions arise.
· Parents should be reminded that any child with fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat must stay home. Staff members should stay home if they display any COVID-19 symptoms.
· School nurses should vigilantly look out for symptomatic students. Symptomatic students should be immediately isolated by the nurse and sent home.
· Students should be encouraged to regularly abide by hand washing and other hygiene practices detailed here. Soap and sanitizing dispensers should be made available and hand washing with students should occur at regular intervals, such as upon building entry and reentry, before eating, etc.
· Yeshivos should redouble their typical cleaning practices, especially on high-touch surfaces.
6. Should mikvaos close?
As stated on our March 9th FAQs, Agudath Israel is not recommending mikvah closures.
7. Should simchos be postponed or altered in light of these social distancing recommendations?
In states that have limited the number of people that may gather (see FAQ #3), some simchos will have to change. State guidelines may intensify as the situation progresses, and other states may follow suit.
In any case, baalei simchah should be prudent in not hosting events that will cause many people to be gathered densely. Hand-in-hand dancing should be avoided.
8. Let’s talk real hishtadlus! What spiritual measures should we take to combat this worldwide gezeirah?
During the persecutions of 1648-1649, the Tosfos Yom-Tov stated that an important cause of the gezeirah was people talking during davening. It is sensible to strengthen ourselves in davening properly in general at this time, and without talking.
Others have pointed to the Chiddushei Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Nedarim 39), who advised saying Pitum Haketores bitzibur in the morning and evening to stave off the malach hamoves during the plague that occurred during his time.
We expect the number of COVID-19 cases to increase dramatically in the near future. As testing to detect COVID-19 ramps up, what in another year may have been dismissed as a cold or flu, may turn out to be COVID-19. However, our reaction to challenge has historically been to look inward, and resolve to fortify ourselves spiritually in some way. In general, an increase in Torah, tefillah, and tzedakah, which have been taken when facing previous adversities, is always a positive approach. The challenge of COVID-19 is no different.
May Hashem slow the pace of this outbreak and speedily remove COVID-19 in our times!
· It is our halachic duty to take this situation seriously, but calmly. This is serious, but know that the overwhelming majority of those with COVID-19 (Coronavirus) recover without incident.
· These general guidelines must be adjusted to local conditions on the ground and the rapidly changing circumstances. Orthodox communities experiencing an increased number of cases must take precautions beyond those recommended below. Even communities with no cases should heed the precautions recommended below, due to the interlinked nature of our communities and contagious nature of COVID-19. The goal is to prevent, not deal with cases after the fact. We need to establish a uniform baseline of precaution throughout our communities, or the virus will exploit the weakest communal link.
· Those over 50 or 60, those with cardiovascular disease (including high blood pressure), diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, or certain other chronic or immunocompromised conditions, are especially vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. All such people should take precautions beyond those listed below. Those who care for, or have close interaction with such individuals, should also adopt a more careful approach.
· If you have any symptoms of COVID-19 – fever, cough, shortness of breath, or sore throat, STAY HOME. Call your physician. This includes anyone with a fever or a cough without another known cause.
· Proper hygiene practices are A MUST. See here.
Special thanks the following individuals for their help in reviewing this information:
Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, MD, FACP, FIDSA, FSHEA is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Anshei Chesed and Assistant Rabbi at the Young Israel of Woodmere. Rabbi Dr. Glatt is Chairman of Medicine and Hospital Epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau, and a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. He is also a spokesperson for the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Jonathan Shuter, MD, is a graduate of the Boston University School of Medicine. He is a physician-scientist who has served as an infectious diseases subspecialist and clinical researcher at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx for over 25 years. He is a tenured Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases, and a Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.