In one New Jersey county facing an uncontrolled coronavirus outbreak, rabbis are ordering all synagogues closed.
In a statement released Thursday, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County said everyone should pray at home with only their immediate family around them, playdates between children of different families should be avoided, funerals should be family-only events, and kosher restaurants should serve takeout meals only, among other measures.
“It is with a very heavy heart that we are suspending so many of the most crucial routines of our daily lives and lifecycle moments,” the rabbis wrote in a letter after an emergency meeting with local officials and health experts. “These measures are adopted as a reflection of our overarching commitment to the sanctity of all human life, and we pray that these will be very temporary measures.”
The decision is part of a broad effort at “social distancing” underway in areas around the world experiencing an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus. The policies are meant to reduce the number of interactions between people that could facilitate the quick spread of the virus.
The slower the spread, health officials worldwide have said, the better hospitals will be able to care for those infected and the lower the death toll will be.
“Slowing the spread of the disease will allow our hospitals to best manage this situation,” the rabbis’ letter said. “The only way to do this is for us to socially distance ourselves from one another. Moreover, the doctors [from local hospitals who spoke with the Jewish communal leaders] emphasized that the most significant community closure possible will make the greatest impact in potentially saving lives in our area.”
Therefore, they wrote, “We must all try our best to stay home with only our immediate family for now and to avoid unnecessary contact with others, and particularly with substantial groups. We should only leave when it is truly necessary.”
At least 25 cases of coronavirus infections have been confirmed in New Jersey, and many more in neighboring New York.
The virus has infected more than 800 people in the US and killed at least 29, with one state after another recording their first infections in quick succession. New Jersey reported its first coronavirus death Tuesday. Worldwide, about 118,000 have been infected and over 4,200 have died.
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover in a matter of weeks, as has happened with three-quarters of those infected in China.
One of the epicenters of the outbreak in the US lies just six miles from Bergen County, in New Rochelle, New York.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday that three schools and other gathering places will be shut down for two weeks in a containment zone in the town after an outbreak of more than 100 confirmed cases. Officials said National Guard troops will help clean public spaces and deliver food to people quarantined at home in the zone, which extends a mile in all directions from a synagogue connected to some of the cases.
“It is a dramatic action, but it is the largest cluster of cases in the country,” Cuomo said. “The numbers are going up unabated, and we do need a special public health strategy.”
New Rochelle and surrounding Westchester County account for the majority of New York State’s 173 coronavirus cases. New York City, with 100 times the population of New Rochelle, has just 36 known infections.