We find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, caused by a highly contagious, dangerous new viral illness — COVID-19. As we seek to assess this new threat, evidence to guide us is scarce and partisanship is, unfortunately, everywhere. It’s hard to keep up — each day brings revised CDC guidelines and protocols, new state rules and local regulations. Rumors and opinions fly, politicians make many speeches, and we try to navigate responsibly between panic and denial. 
Here in Rockland County, tensions have been running high between communities for a while. It is difficult for us to talk about uncomfortable truths, there is a lot of defensiveness and not much trust; yet here we are, stuck in an epidemic together. I am going to write plainly (albeit briefly) about some uncomfortable matters as I understand them, because lives are at stake and we are all going to need each other before this chapter ends.  
Government officials are hesitant to say this out loud — but the fact is, this virus was spreading silently and rapidly through the Orthodox communities of the greater New York before we realized it. Despite early indications, authorities have been slow to warn everyone that the infected are probably contagious before they have symptoms and that the virus may live on surfaces for days. So after COVID-19 surfaced at a Westchester shul and at AIPAC, we across the Orthodox Jewish spectrum washed our hands extra well — but continued our typical patterns of daily interactions, which take place along a dense network of personal, professional, and communal relationships that connect our communities across the region.  
I am not sure why it was not immediately obvious to the CDC and state and local DOH that an outbreak in New Rochelle was certain to rapidly connect to Passaic, Teaneck, Lakewood, Riverdale, Monsey, Brooklyn, Lawrence, etc. In any case, the situation was not approached with aggressive containment strategies using contact tracing, informing, and quarantining beyond Westchester County. To be fair, it is understandable that public officials were hesitant to connect these dots. They were surely not eager to be accused of unfair treatment or of “targeting” their Orthodox constituents. Still, this reticence left organizations, schools, synagogues and doctors in all of these communities unaware of the rapid spread of the virus across locations and without much lead time to warn their communities of the imminent danger.
Today we must get it right. 
County and state lines are irrelevant, localized containment areas are woefully inadequate, and counting cases by county or state has been masking the reality that we face.  After several weeks of interacting at each other’s schools, shuls, supermarkets, and celebrations, we must understand that there is an overwhelming likelihood of widespread exposure and infection in every Orthodox Jewish community — including beyond the tri-state area. And we must recognize that we endanger not only one another but also everyone living in proximity to our communities. Each day that we fail to shut this down means more and more people catching the virus. Instead of vilifying those officials who are doing their job and trying to protect us and our neighbors, we should be thanking them for trying, and working with them to help them get the details right. 
It is late, but not too late:
  • Many of us have spent this morning in fasting and prayer; we must draw strength from that to confront the reality we face. 
  • Extreme measures are no longer extreme for those of us in the hotspot.  We have to stay at home, now and for quite a while. 
  • Those over 60, or with asthma, diabetes, or heart or lung conditions, need to remain in isolation. (Israel is on total lockdown for 7 days, to keep perspective.)
  • Anyone feeling sick has to get tested. 
  • Passover approaches, and it’s not going to be the same as usual.  Every household must be prepared to spend the holiday at home – no exposing grandparents to anything. 
  • We have to budget wisely because rough times are ahead financially.  
  • Kosher supermarkets remain crowded – we could use the National Guard here to help them expand their capacity for delivery as was done in New Rochelle; and young, healthy adults who do not live with parents should offer to shop for those on their block who should really not be going out.   
  • Children will be anxious and need our extra attention and patience. 
We mustn’t forget to care about the welfare of everyone, even as we focus on our relationships with those closest to us, with our Creator, and within ourselves. May all of us, in this county and in the world, emerge healthy and renewed and full of appreciation for everyone and everything we may have been taking for granted. 
Shani Bechhofer, a resident of Ramapo, New York, is a Jewish schooling consultant and researcher, a community leader and former candidate for Ramapo Town Council.