With appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital and Norwood Hospital, Dr. Bruce Weinstock has been voluntarily advising synagogues and day schools on COVID-19 preparation. This past May, Weinstock participated in a webinar for the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts on coronavirus preparation.
The upcoming Sukkot holiday highlights our vulnerability to nature and the elements. Meals are eaten in makeshift booths, or sukkot, that are built to specification. This year, those specifications will also have to adhere to COVID-19 safety measures. Weinstock spoke to JewishBoston about Sukkot observance in the middle of a pandemic.
Most people don’t have a big sukkah or outdoor space. How can people be safe and observe the holiday?
There are many features to the holiday, which require some adaptation. But individuals have a relationship with the sukkah even if they’re not with other people. According to Jewish law and tradition, one can build a sukkah and be in a sukkah as an individual. The key challenge is that Sukkot is a socializing holiday. How do you accomplish that in a way that is both safe and meaningful?
How can a sukkah be safely constructed for a pandemic?
Traditionally, a sukkah needs to have at least two walls, plus a little bit of a third wall [approximately two feet wide]. Many people will have a sukkah with four walls, but according to Jewish law, it’s not necessary. Two walls and a little bit of a third wall is enough.
The walls don’t need to be absolutely solid from a religious law point of view. There are details by which the walls can have gaps. And so, having the minimum number of walls, plus having the maximum number of gaps, can allow people to have excellent ventilation within their sukkah. The risk of COVID-19 goes up when associating with other people in poorly ventilated spaces at close distances for long periods.
What is the best way to minimize risk when socializing with others in the sukkah?
The best way to minimize risk is to make the ventilation as good as it can be. This means reducing the walls, increasing the gaps as Jewish law permits for any walls to exist, and then being judicious about allocating both space and time. One should not be closer than six feet with anyone else unless they’re part of the same pod or bubble or household. If you’re more than six feet away and masked and outside with good ventilation in a sukkah, you can probably safely presume that you can sit there for an indefinite time as long as you keep your masks on.
What happens if people want to eat together in a sukkah?
The issue is that the mask has to be removed for eating. If you are in a well-ventilated space at greater than six feet with your mask off while eating, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has considered this a reasonable activity based on its Phase III ruling. From a science point of view, I worry about people who are eating together with masks off, given the vagaries of wind distance. There is no activity, which is absolutely safe, but people have markedly decreased their risk if they are six feet away.
However, eating is a slightly higher risk activity than talking, and talking is a much higher risk activity than simply breathing. It depends on your risk tolerance and if you want to minimize risk. Massachusetts says it’s enough to eat at greater than six feet outside without a mask. If you can, reduce the time your mask is down to decrease the risk for yourself.
Wouldn’t you have to build a sukkah large enough to accommodate distances of six feet?
The challenge may be building a sukkah that is large enough to be six feet from a person who’s not a family member. It can be hard for some people to do that given their space constraints. However, if someone you’ve dined less than six feet with becomes COVID-19 positive, that is considered a high-risk event. The exposed person would need to quarantine.
If they were more than six feet apart, then the Department of Public Health would say it is a low enough risk event that even if the other person develops COVID-19, the people around them would not need to quarantine. My advice is to try and be at least six feet away [at all times].
People could do this by alternating their time in the sukkah if they can’t have a large enough sukkah. They should go into the sukkah very briefly and make whatever blessings they need to make. Then, one of them sits at a table outside the sukkah and one of them sits at a table inside the sukkah. Halfway through the meal, they switch their seating arrangement, enabling them to fulfill the religious obligations and enjoy the social obligations.
How does one prepare food for others?
If you are cooking on behalf of somebody else, I recommend that the cooking preparation before seating should have the food heated or baked to greater than 180 degrees. That should sufficiently kill off any virus. If there’s handling of food that is not going to be cooked, it should be prepped with gloves and masks on and served with gloves and masks. There should not be an open plate of food which is breathed on by both parties. Somebody should cover food to which both parties have access to breathe upon at all times.
The key things to bear in mind for public safety are to build a sukkah this year with a minimum of walls and the maximum amount of gap in the walls that feels religiously comfortable. You can speak with a rabbi about what those gaps would be.
This interview has been edited and condensed.