May 28, 2020
Dear Community Members,
Minyanim have been absent from our communities for many weeks now. Initially everyone reluctantly complied and recognized the public health emergency and the real threat to lives. Now, as we hear that the pandemic in the GTA and our community is not decreasing, and the emergency orders have been renewed until June 9th, it is clear that minyanim for Shavuot will not be possible.
At this time, many people, from Rabbonim, to community leaders, balabatim, and even health professionals are asking themselves: How much longer must we still adhere to this very difficult decree? How can it be that other activities are permitted, but minyanim are forbidden?
Here is the answer.
In order to begin to daven together in minyanim, three conditions must be met.
- They must have the guidance and approval of Rabbis, including halachic frameworks for how minyans should take place considering legal and health-related matters.
- They must be legal and not in violation of the law.
- They must be safe for individuals attending and for the kehilla as a whole
Rabbinic guidance is in the hands of our Rabbonim and the law rests with the municipalities and the province. The explanation below on the safety of minyanim at this time is solely from a medical and public health perspective.
To begin, it is my strong feeling that it is not the law that is a barrier to opening minyanim. It is clear from the epidemiologic data and my experience in managing community outbreaks this week, that this final condition – the safety of individuals and the community – has not yet been met. With the recent increase in cases and outbreaks and deaths in the community, minyanim still present a very real risk, regardless of the guidance they follow. As you will have noted in some recent developments, the provincial government does not always follow public health advice it receives. Lehavdil, cigarettes and recreational cannabis are legal, but that does not mean they are safe.
How is COVID-19 Transmitted?
Though it can be transmitted on surfaces and objects, COVID-19 is primarily transmitted person to person though droplets. These droplets are spread when people breath, speak, sing or cough. While 2m (6ft) is generally considered safe, there is no magic distance from another person that guarantees that another person will not be infected. It is now known that a significant proportion of COVID-19 is asymptomatic, and that people can infect others before they become symptomatic. This means that a perfectly healthy person could infect one, or many other people.
Are ‘Essential’ Businesses Safe?
The spread of the virus in communities depends on the overall number of people who interact with each other, and how frequently they interact. The provincial emergency orders were designed to decrease the overall number of people and the frequency of interactions – and they were very successful. Allowing people to visit grocery stores and the LCBO was not a declaration that these places were safe, but it was designed to decrease the overall number and frequency of interactions between people. Some essential businesses also remained open. This did not mean those businesses were safe. In fact, there have been many large outbreaks in some of these workplaces. I am personally managing 61 of these active outbreaks today. The risk the people who worked in these facilities were exposed to is real, and there have been deaths. Health care workers are considered essential, and always wear appropriate protective equipment, yet almost 15% of them (over 3000 nurses, PSWs and doctors) have become infected in Ontario. These businesses or services were considered essential to the minimal functioning of our society and so they were allowed to remain open.
It is clear that we Jews feel strongly that minyanim are essential to our lives – certainly more essential than the LCBO or Costco. The fundamental difference between any of these provincially designated essential activities and minyanim is their frequency, consistence and attendance. No public health or provincial guidance would suggest allowing LCBOs to be open if there was a suggestion that every person from a particular community would frequent the LCBO 3 times per day. This would be dangerous as long as there is community transmission.
To be clear, there are ways to safely conduct a single minyan – distancing, restricting attendance, outdoors, oversight. However, a general policy allowing hundreds of minyanim across the city, three times daily, in addition to all of the other interactions, large families, and essential activities would be a true sakana, in my opinion.
When will minyanim be safe?
There are currently many cases being reported in Ontario – specifically in the GTA. Recently released ‘hot spot’ data show that some Jewish communities are affected. Even if you do not live in a ‘hot spot’, the cases are not restricted to these areas. For those who want a specific answer to this question – when the case count in Ontario is consistently below 150-200 cases for 2 weeks, and there are few or no cases in the Jewish community (without an epidemiologic link), then we can begin to daven in Minyanim safely. Israel has had fewer that 20 cases per day for over two weeks, and as such it is permissible. Alberta and BC, among other places, have few enough cases that minyanim, with all the safeguards, could be considered. In Quebec, this would not be the case. The United States is the global epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak. In my opinion, many communities there are taking risks with the lives of members of their communities which are unjustifiable – from a public health perspective.
The Kol HaCOVID team has been working on a document to help frame and guide our communal approach to gatherings in general. It outlines relative risks of COVID19 spread associated with different types of gatherings and it will hopefully serve to inform and clarify individual and communal actions moving forward. It will be shared in the near future.
I share in our community’s yearning to return to minyanim. With Shavuot upon, I know that this is a difficult decision, with many competing pressures. I would not reach out to you if I did not feel it were a true risk.
Dr. Barry Pakes