The COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated restrictions, such as social distancing, that have been even more difficult for our community than for some other segments of society, given the suspension of our communal religious and social activities. Nonetheless, these same activities probably contributed to initial higher rates of the disease in our community, such as occurred in New Rochelle and later in Teaneck. The imposition of the quarantine, however challenging, has clearly resulted in significant improvements in these disease rates. The members of our community should be applauded for all that has been done, to this point, to save lives.
However, as the weather has improved, we have both personally witnessed numerous instances of noncompliance with the generally recommended social-distancing guidelines, including the maintenance of six feet of distance at all times, and, as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends, wearing a basic cloth mask whenever one enters a public space. People are gathering in close proximity; one of us witnessed an instance of a backyard kiddush. One of us has received numerous distraught calls from parents in the community upset that others are not observing social distancing and from individuals who feel that it is not safe for them to even walk on their own blocks because of violations of social distancing. One rabbinic figure in the community recently informed us of a roller hockey game that he personally observed.
In particular, the degree and mode of socialization we have witnessed on Shabbat has compelled us to address the community in writing. This noncompliance, even on the part of what is surely a minority, is alarming. These guidelines have been adopted not just by the CDC and the state of New Jersey, but by local Teaneck authorities in response to the particularly high rates of the disease locally.
At this point, we are all aware that the novel virus that causes COVID-19 is directly transmitted between people via respiratory droplets, as well as by tiny aerosols that we emit into the air. While six feet of distance is generally sufficient to allow larger droplets that we exhale to safely fall to the ground, numerous studies have indicated that droplets can travel well beyond six feet when a person speaks, sneezes or coughs. Similarly, the tiny aerosols that we emit can be carried distances far in excess of six feet. Being outside reduces, but does not eliminate, the risk of transmission. As we have observed repeatedly, groups of people walking together, from different families, do not consistently maintain six feet of distancing. With large crowds of people on the street, and vehicular traffic, it is sometimes altogether impossible to do so.
This is precisely why the CDC1 now recommends wearing masks (except for those under two or with respiratory disorders2) whenever one leaves one’s home for the public space, especially when one will interact with others, and why the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, whose leadership throughout this pandemic has been invaluable, has publicly urged full compliance with this critical recommendation. Masks can reduce the emissions by up to 99%.
As policy makers struggle to find the delicate balance between the social-distancing measures necessary to save life, and the reopening of our economy, which also has life-saving implications, we must be aware that even these measured and calibrated relaxations will lead to an increase in the rates of COVID-19 transmission. Moreover, the absence of domestic travel restrictions and widespread surveillance testing means that the increased rate of transmission as spread of the virus in our region takes place will, in all likelihood, go undetected until containment is no longer feasible. In this context, the social distancing of at least six feet and mask wearing when one enters the public space become even more essential mitigation measures.
We are profoundly aware of how culturally challenging mask wearing can be in our society. And yet, the numbers speak for themselves. Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea have population densities many times that of the United States. As our country approaches the staggering figure of 100,000 deaths, these localities have death totals, respectively, of 22, 4, 732 and 260, at the time of this writing.
To be fair, Asian societies have far greater cultural acceptance of face masks than our own. However, the two countries where they are legally mandated outside of the home, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, certainly did not have a history of face-mask utilization prior to this pandemic. There, too, the numbers tell the story, with mortalities of 298 and 28, respectively. We do not mean to present an oversimplified picture of the mortality rates of this virus in different localities, but it is absolutely clear that social distancing and mask wearing, especially given the rate of asymptomatic infection and transmission, is an essential tool for reducing the spread of this virus.
The halachic perspective regarding safeguarding life is one of absolute and total vigilance. The Talmud Yerushalmi, recorded by the Shulchan Aruch, has harsh words for a rabbi who fails to inculcate a sense of urgency in his community regarding these matters, even when it comes to what otherwise would entail a violation of Shabbat. In his formulation of the law that preservation of life takes priority over Shabbat, Rambam writes that it is not merely obligatory to take whatever action is necessary to preserve life, but to do so immediately.
Similarly, in his discussion of the prohibition of “standing idly by the blood of one’s neighbor,” Rambam writes that the prohibition is not limited to simple inaction that results in tragedy, but, more importantly, is directed at an attitude of laxity, hitrashlut, towards matters concerning the preservation of human life in general. When proper guidelines are not maintained, neither oneself, one’s neighbor nor the honor of Torah is afforded this measure of protection.
Hillel famously posed the three-fold question: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” We could continue to pine for a miracle vaccine or therapy that does not appear to be in the immediate offing, spend all of our time blaming others for the carnage our country has experienced, or respond in the affirmative to all three of Hillel’s questions. There is no need to spread fear. On the contrary, let us all resolve to take responsibility for ourselves and for those around us, and let us do so now, to further establish the culture of discipline and vigilance that saves lives.
We have every confidence in our community’s ability to continue to rise to the historic challenge with which we have been presented. We know that when the time comes for us to safely resume the modes of social interaction we all took for granted just two months ago, we will look back with pride at all that we did to help protect ourselves and one another. May He who is the Healer of All Flesh and the Guardian of Israel bring an end to this pandemic. Until that day, may He grant us the wisdom and discipline necessary to fulfill the sacred mitzvah, “and you shall be extremely vigilant concerning your souls.”
Rabbi Fridman is rabbi of the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Dr. Neugut is professor of epidemiology and cancer research at Columbia University Medical Center.
1 See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019
-ncov/downloads/cloth-face-coverings-information.pdf. CDC “recommends that everyone wear cloth face coverings when leaving their homes, regardless of whether they have fever or symptoms of COVID-19…”
2 Please contact your healthcare provider regarding specific questions.