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Shavua Tov: To Be or Not to Be – A Mask-hole?

Here I sit sandwiched between two types of gatherings. Last weekend I attended a significant birthday celebration for my father, and this weekend my congregation is hosting our first in-person community Seder in three years. Last weekend we permitted only vaccinated persons to attend, and they were required to wear masks when not eating or drinking. This coming weekend, a similar number will gather in our Social Hall, and prior vaccination will be required, though wearing masks will only be “highly recommended.”

This stage of the pandemic is different from earlier stages. 95% of Americans now show evidence of COVID antibodies in their system, obtained via vaccination and/or prior exposure. The hospitalization rate is the lowest it has been since the earliest days of the pandemic. The now-dominant Omicron B.A.2 variant is 30 – 60% more transmissible than B.A.1, but far less virulent. The entire nation has relaxed its restrictions.

What’s worrisome, however, is that the case rate is rising again across the nation – especially in the Northeast – and is up 71% over the last two weeks here in L.A. County. Can we reasonably expect the lagging indicators of hospitalizations and deaths also to tick up soon? Will children and young adults – who have been largely passed over by the angel of COVID – become more susceptible this time than their older counterparts? That these unknowns are known provides cold comfort, which may explain why the city of Philadelphia just reinstated its indoor mask mandate.

This morning I read that in regions where the test positivity rate is 1.5%, there is a 28% chance that a gathering of 20 persons will include someone who is COVID positive (as of today it is less than 1% in L.A. County, but that number is sure to rise). It is likely this person will be asymptomatic and may unknowingly transmit the virus to a vulnerable person. Another concerning statistic is that 30 – 40% of COVID deaths were among persons with diabetes, which, along with hypertension and cardiovascular disease, was the most common comorbidity among COVID patients. That likely covers the majority of my regular shul-goers and the older members of my family, including my father.

I was tempted this week to jettison this whole subject and blog about something more uplifting and directly related to Passover. I cannot do this right now, because I find myself holding my breath about all these Jews getting together for Passover this weekend – not to mention all the Christians getting together for Easter and Muslims for Ramadan. This confluence of religious celebrations potentially has all the markings of a series of super-spreader events. The numbers will certainly continue to go up, maybe a lot. And although I agree with the White House COVID “czar’s” advice that we should not be “excessively cautious,” I am left wondering how much caution is excessive. I don’t think it’s excessively cautious to follow the CDC’s strong recommendation that people wear masks while indoors. I don’t think it’s excessively cautious to continue socially distancing as much as one can. And I’m still hesitant to shake hands, though I did do my share of hugging last weekend.

And it’s certainly not excessively cautious to recommend strongly that people getting together indoors wear a mask, especially if there is someone in the planned gathering who is vulnerable to hospitalization.

What I found over the weekend is that too many people are throwing caution to the wind. At Syracuse airport, where masks remain required, about a quarter of the people were not wearing them, though all of them were wearing them on the plane. In Oneida County – where the case rate has shot up over 100% in the last two weeks – I witnessed almost no one wearing masks. Yet here in L.A. I’m finding that most people are still wearing masks at the supermarkets. What gives?

Social pressure is a strong factor. Last weekend I wondered to myself if I really needed to wear a mask, since many around me were not. But the previous weekend I noticed that most people in the pews were also not wearing masks. I mentioned that wearing them – though no longer required – were highly recommended. Most of the unmasked population then took masks out of their pockets and put them on. Apparently they had brought their masks with them but did not wear them. All it took was a sermonic digression to make them change their minds.

So last weekend I wore my mask most of the time while indoors, but unlike last summer, I did not go up to random strangers and loved ones alike to badger them into wearing masks (which mostly worked, by the way). I did not complain about them to the TSA. I did not write an angry letter to any member of Congress. So, no, I guess I am no longer a “mask-hole.” But I’m not entirely comfortable not being one.

For a third consecutive year, that line from the Haggadah – “now we are slaves, next year we will be free” – sends a faint chill down my spine, as I know that someone may die because their loved ones weren’t careful enough. Perhaps I can prevent that death, and perhaps so can you. Now we find ourselves somewhat restricted by a persistent plague. Next year, it is hoped, will be different.

“Next year in Jerusalem.” Which is difficult to accomplish while dead or hospitalized. We can endure wearing yarmulkehs on our face a little while longer if it helps us and our loved ones get there. Chag Sameach and Shavua Tov.


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