By Shira Hanau

The Rabbinical Council-Vaad Harabanim of Baltimore, the umbrella group of local Orthodox rabbis, issued a letter on Aug. 11 urging community members to use greater caution when attending weddings during the pandemic.

“The social distancing and the wearing of masks is making a real difference,” read the letter from Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer, the group’s president. “While in the shuls this vigilance is still evident, one area where a laxity has sometimes set in is at weddings. Unfortunately, our guard has been let down when it comes to the masks and social distancing at chasunahs [weddings]. This is not only a threat to our continued health, but it … could set us back in our quest to be able to open the schools.

“We plead with each and every one of you to extend the care and vigilance you exhibit in shul to our weddings as well,” the letter read. “Please be aware as well that there are new cases of COVID-19 in our community. These recent cases have been traced to those who have attended chasunahs in New York and New Jersey where social distancing and masking were not followed.”

As the summer comes to a close and families prepare for a new school year and the High Holiday season, government officials and Orthodox leaders are monitoring new coronavirus cases in Orthodox communities along the Eastern seaboard.

They say the cases, while currently small in number, could spiral out of control, derailing plans to reopen schools with in-person instruction and hold in-person services for the holidays.

Left unchecked, the increasing cases also have the potential to turn next month’s gatherings in schools and synagogues into super-spreader events, reversing the progress made over the past few months.

“It has the potential to be a perfect storm,” said Rabbi Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chief of infectious diseases and a hospital epidemiologist at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, N.Y. “The question everyone has to ask themselves is, ‘Is not wearing a mask that critical that they’re willing to risk everything?’”

Dr. Avi Z. Rosenberg, an assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, said weddings were his chief concern.

“We have people who are clearly running unmitigated simchas [joyous events],” he said.

Last week, Dr. Rosenberg said he learned of approximately 25 new COVID-19 cases in Baltimore’s Orthodox community. Most were connected to weddings in Brooklyn, N.Y., or Lakewood, N.J., home to large Orthodox communities, he said.

Weekly cases had remained in the single digits from May until last week, said Dr. Rosenberg, who is also a Chabad rabbi.

“People really need to understand that this upsurge in simcha-related community spread is what’s putting the success of school reopenings at risk,” he said. “If it continues at the rate it’s currently going in, I don’t know how we’re going to open schools safely.”

Over the past week, concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in the Orthodox community have proliferated. One overnight sports camp for boys in Pennsylvania had an outbreak of COVID-19, sending eight campers back to their home communities on Long Island and several to Baltimore, where others had contracted the virus after attending weddings or coming into contact with those who did.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Aug. 19 that 16 new cases were found in the Brooklyn Chasidic neighborhood of Borough Park, with some traced back to a large wedding there recently.

Doctors in Orthodox communities have pointed to a number of sources for the new cases. Vacationers are coming into contact with people from other communities and risking exposure. Overnight camps, which were not allowed to open this year in New York State but were allowed in other states, have seen some outbreaks as well, with the infected campers or staff members sometimes being sent back to their home communities to quarantine.

And while the pandemic seemed to put an end to the large weddings typical of Orthodox communities – guest lists of 400 people or more are not uncommon – the smaller outdoor weddings that have replaced them are still bringing together guests from different places, sometimes in large numbers, while mask wearing and social distancing are inconsistent.

In some communities, large weddings, whether indoors or outdoors, have resumed.

That has been the case especially in some Chasidic neighborhoods of Brooklyn, where life largely returned to normal as early as May and June as many in these communities, including some doctors, believed they had achieved a level of herd immunity — meaning a large enough percentage of the community had acquired immunity after recovering from the virus to significantly slow the transmission of disease.

But even some level of herd immunity does not mean that there can be no cases.

“Herd immunity is a relative concept,” said Dr. Gary Slutkin, an epidemiologist who worked with the World Health Organization for over 10 years on AIDS programs in Africa. “You’re still at risk of being around anyone who’s still infectious, that has not changed for you. So if you’re at a gathering and there’s someone who is infectious, nothing has changed for you.”

To what degree immunity to the virus can be relied upon remains unclear. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised this week that there have been no confirmed cases of reinfection among those who initially contracted the disease in the previous three months, much remains unknown about immunity resulting from previous infection.

In a letter to the Nassau County Orthodox community, Glatt said there are cases of possible reinfection being assessed, but they appear to be rare.

“It still remains very reassuring, that with upwards of 20 million COVID-19 cases worldwide, there are very few proven reinfection cases,” Glatt wrote. “This is critically important for herd immunity, and partially explains why certain communities have very few new COVID-19 cases despite not adhering to masking guidelines.”

Like Baltimore, rabbinical councils in other Orthodox communities have issued notices advocating that people act with caution as communities prepare for the reopening of local schools.

The Rabbinical Council of Bergen County, which was the first such group to shut down its large Orthodox communities in northern New Jersey in March, sent a letter to the community on Aug. 18 warning of the dangers of unchecked celebrations.

“While such an event, first and foremost, constitutes a threat to the health of those in attendance, the risk to the institutional health of our community created by such an event should not be minimized,” the group wrote. “Indeed, even one such event could easily result in the full closure of an entire yeshiva, or multiple yeshivot across our community.”

Shira Hanau writes for the JTA global Jewish news source.

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