Five months into the coronavirus pandemic, cooped-up Californians wonder, “When can we reopen?” The answer, according to state and local authorities: not soon, and only with the utmost caution.
The long-term shelter-in-place and social distancing rules we have had to follow run counter to human nature. All of us are chafing at the restrictions, all of us miss the embrace of family and friends, and all of us watch helplessly as the economic devastation exacted by the pandemic continues.
And yet the science is clear. Maintaining these rules is the only way to stop the spread of the virus and allow our lives to resume. And that won’t happen unless we do as Europe, Canada, Japan, South Korea and so many others have done, which is to shut down, mask up and stay home.
If we rush the process, we risk having to backtrack.
Look at Israel, which until recently had been a model of effective virus suppression. Months ago, the country enacted draconian shelter-in-place measures, which seemed to work. The death count was low, testing and contact tracing up. The country jubilantly reopened schools and businesses and, no surprise, infections skyrocketed. Now many restrictions are back in place. As one government scientist told JTA, Israel has “lost control of the pandemic.”
We cannot make the same mistake in the Bay Area. Despite the appalling lack of a national strategy, made worse by counterproductive messages from President Trump, his coronavirus task force and certain governors overeager to reopen, California must heed the warnings of scientists. We cannot reopen everything now. If we do, the economic and human cost will be disastrous.
That doesn’t mean that we can’t move forward slowly in certain cases, as long as we do so with an abundance of caution. Our story this week on Orthodox synagogues reopening for in-person services notes the ways that strict rules are being followed (limiting attendees, social distancing, no singing or Kiddush).
Responding to the cries for reopening, the Jewish Federations of North America has issued a 33-page guide for ways to do so safely, in accordance with Jewish values. It warns that the virus is not going away and that until there is an effective vaccine, we may experience multiple closures and reopenings.
Though the guide outlines a six-stage reopening strategy, including frequent disinfection, monitoring and planning, it also stresses that the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh — saving a life — should be the top priority, no matter how much it hurts financially or emotionally.
Every Jewish organization has to devise its own timeline for reopening, but none may ignore this cardinal rule.