Dozens of leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community in Florida along with a group of medical professionals signed a “warning letter” to their communities late last week. The message: Don’t travel to Florida for Passover next month and risk spreading the novel coronavirus.
“To all those from out of state considering spending Pesach here in Florida: It’s Halachically prohibited and medically irresponsible to come for Pesach,” the letter begins.
In other words, the letter suggests, traveling for Passover would be a breach of Jewish religious law. Passover this year runs from April 8 to 16.
“We have a Halachic requirement to keep our communities safe,” the letter says. “If you choose to come anyways, jeopardizing the lives of many in Florida, you must quarantine for 14 days.”
The letter was first published Thursday by the website COLlive.
The message is signed by Orthodox rabbis across South and Central Florida. That includes two rabbis in Surfside, north of Miami Beach, who both say they tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus: Sholom D. Lipskar from The Shul of Bal Harbour and Moshe Gruenstein of Young Israel of Bal Harbour.
The Miami Herald obtained a copy of the letter that Young Israel of Bal Harbour sent to its community members via email this past Friday.
Eight medical professionals also signed on, including Roy E. Weiss, professor and chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“The Florida health care system is currently overburdened and an influx of new patients can lead to deaths,” the letter says, adding that anyone who does travel to Florida for Passover must self-quarantine for two weeks.
“This means no leaving the house, no excursions, no beach, no pool, no restaurants, etc.,” the message says.
The letter comes from the leaders of Orthodox synagogues, Chabad houses and other Jewish organizations from as far south as the Florida Keys and as far north as Orlando. More than 40 people signed their names.
“Please be informed: Our local Shuls, organizations, Chabad Houses, or Kosher establishments will not be able to accommodate you for davening, mikvah, meals, tickets to parks or similar,” the email says.
The message came not long after several Orthodox Jewish groups at the national level issued a joint statement urging social distancing in their communities. That statement was issued by the Orthodox Union, Agudath Israel of America, the National Council of Young Israel, the Lakewood Vaad, the Rabbinical Council of America and the Rabbinical Alliance of America.
“We have heretofore urged not only full compliance with all health guidelines issued by federal, state, and local governments, but have gone beyond those pronouncements in urging our communities to remain at home and avoid, to the maximum extent feasible, any outside interactions,” said the announcement Friday.
The potential for the novel coronavirus to spread within tight-knit observant Jewish communities has raised concern not only in Florida, but also in New York. In the Brooklyn communities of Borough Park and Williamsburg, which have large populations of Hasidic Jewish people, more than 100 people have recently tested positive for COVID-19, according to The New York Times.
In South Florida, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar attended multiple large gatherings with hundreds of other people at The Shul of Bal Harbour to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim on March 9 and 10.
There have not yet been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Surfside, where The Shul and Young Israel of Bal Harbour are located, according to data released Sunday by the Florida Department of Health. There are two confirmed cases in neighboring Bal Harbour, although the state does not identify cases by name.
Part of the concern among the Jewish community in South Florida involves travel specifically from New York, where there is also a large contingent of Orthodox Jews. One New York man who tested positive for COVID-19 reportedly spent time in Bal Harbour before showing symptoms.
Rabbi Donald Bixon, who leads the Beth Israel Congregation in Miami Beach, said the letter was partially in response to rumors that have been swirling on Facebook and in the Orthodox community about carloads of people planning to drive to Florida from a “heavily infected area” in New York.
Whether or not that’s true, he said, the letter sent a necessary message.
“Passover is getting closer and we are a host city for the ‘Passover Olympics’ in general,” Bixon said of Miami Beach. “It’s not that we want to close our doors. … [The letter] wasn’t the rabbis turning people away. It was the rabbis trying to protect who’s here.”
Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said his city’s residents need to rethink upcoming religious holidays that often involve travel — not just Passover, but also Easter, which falls on April 12.
“We must vigorously discourage EVERYONE from coming down, including family and friends, and explain that their proposed visit to S. Florida will very likely endanger many lives,” Gelber wrote Friday in an email to residents.
On Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he still doesn’t want to lock down Florida in an effort to contain the coronavirus, saying the state has seen a “huge amount” of New Yorkers flying in even after New York City issued stay-at-home orders. But he did order that anyone flying into Florida from New York, New Jersey or Connecticut self-isolate for 14 days upon arrival.
DeSantis said New York’s experience is further evidence that trying to contain people, which is the recommendation of top health officials, can backfire.
“If you look at what happened in New York, when they did the stay-at-home order, what did people do?” DeSantis said. “Well, a lot of people fled the city. … We’re getting huge amounts of people flying in.”
DeSantis said he spoke to President Donald Trump about those flights on Sunday night.
“For every action, there’s a reaction,” DeSantis said. “We’re going to consider what makes sense for Florida.”
As of Monday morning, Florida has over 1,100 confirmed COVID-19 cases with nearly half of them coming from Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Herald/Times staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.