Schools close and kosher restaurants take a hit as coronavirus precautions tighten

Tim Mossholder

Corrected March 16, 11:45 a.m. The date Charles E. Smith Life Communities instituted its no-visitors rule as a precaution against the coronavirus was March 11. The date has been corrected in the story.

The threat of a spreading coronavirus has effectively shut the Washington area’s Jewish community. Schools and synagogues have closed, programs have been cancelled, facilities for the elderly are quarantined and kosher restaurants are being cleaned and cleaned again while facing a drop off in business.

With Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) having announced the closure of public schools in the state beginning today, Jewish schools are following suit.

Today, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School announced it is closing with distance learning beginning on March 18.

“We are taking the spread of the virus, and the evolution of the virus very seriously,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school. “We are concerned with about maintaining the continuity of instruction and the continuity of learning during this period.

“Basically, we will continue education and understand that it will be different at home,” he added.

A group of seniors from the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School are traveling in Israel.

On Thursday, families from the Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville received an email announcing the closure of the school between March 16 and 27, 2020. “All school programs are canceled,” the announcement continued. “We will resume school on Monday, March 30 unless there are additional updates.

“We would like to stress that we have no positive diagnoses of Coronavirus in our community at this time. This is a proactive measure following the guidance of the State of Maryland to prevent further spread of the virus,” the email said.

As of Friday, there were 10 coronavirus cases in the District, 30 in Virginia and 17 in Maryland, according to the health departments of the various jurisdictions.

With Passover four weeks away, Siena’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Rockville would normally be seeing an upsurge of catering orders. But owner Ramesh Zadeh said orders have been cancelled as worry about the coronavirus has spiked.

It’s not [business] as usual.  I can’t lie,” she said at lunchtime on Thursday.

Multi-tasking as cashier and as kitchen staff, she said, “I’m using sanitizer for my hands at the cash register and before I handle cash and after I touch cash. I wash my hands constantly and have gloves available.  I keep telling everyone to wash hands and use gloves.”

At Oh Mama Grill in Rockville, customers waited in line to give their orders to manager Riki Alkoby. She said because there is an open kitchen and the staff handles raw meat, “We are always cleaning more, and have to have gloves on at all times,” she said.

At Moti’s supermarket in Rockville, owner Gideon Sasson was stocking his shelves with wine. We have hired extra people to clean all the surfaces that people touch, like doors and refrigerators,” he said.

“We put gloves up front, asking our customers to use them to protect [themselves] and us.  All our employees use gloves, they wash their hands frequently.  We clean our carts with high-pressured water machines. We put towels out with disinfectant to clean the carts, and tell people to be careful and stay away from each other.”

Moti’s is busy, with customers stocking up. But Sasson’s Al Ha’esh restaurant is taking a hit.

“The restaurant is a huge decline, because people are not coming out to eat,” Sasson said.

At Ben Yehuda Café & Pizzeria on Thursday, Reyna and Isaac Cohen were one of the few lunchtime diners. Reyna is taking the coronavirus threat seriously, although she believes it’s being overblown.

“I’m taking a lot of precautions, but I think it’s a bit overdone in the news too much,” she said. “We have other viruses in the past and never been like this. I’m afraid, but taking caution and washing my hands.  I’m trying not to be in crowded areas, too.”

On Friday, Ben Yehuda closed “so we can thoroughly clean and sanitize our kitchen and dining room,” owners Josh and Sara Katz wrote in an email.

“Beyond today, we will be tightening our sanitation standards and have instructed our team to stay home if they are not feeling well, following the recommendations published by the CDC. We ask that any customer who is feeling ill or showing any COVID-19 symptoms to please stay home.”

Like Ben Yehuda, Holy Chow in Rockville is offering delivery to customers who are quarantined, under high risk of infection or ill.

“At times like these it’s important that we as a community work together to help out those in need and reassure the people most affected by the current crisis that they aren’t alone and someone is looking out for them,” Holy Chow posted on its Facebook page.

Charles E. Smith Life Communities on March 11 announced that “as a preventative measure, we will close all residences on campus to all family members and visitors.”

And the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Greater Washington announced it will provide zero-interest emergency loans up to $1,000 to qualified Jewish borrowers in need across the DC metro area.

Editor David Holzel contributed to this story.

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Area schools and synagogues are closing and programs are being cancelled because of the threat of spreading the coronavirus. Here is a partial list:

In College Park, the University of Maryland had no known cases of infection as of March 10, according to Maryland Hillel.

The school will move to online classes beginning March 23 and continue at least until April 10.

Sunday, March 15 — Simcha and Celebrations Expo at the Bender Jewish Community Center in Rockville — Rescheduled.

Monday, March 16 — The film “Love In Suspenders” at Leisure World, Clubhouse II Auditorium — Cancelled.

Sunday, March 22 — L’Dor Vador: The Music of Our Mentors: A Cantorial Concert at Temple Emanuel — Cancelled. “Basically, everything is postponed or cancelled through March,” says Executive Director Dianne Neiman.

Sunday, April 19 — Yom Hashoah commemorations, sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington will be live streamed.  “Given the public health situation, only those participating in the ceremony will be present, and it will not be open to the public,” according to the JCRC.

In an email sent on March 12, Adas Israel Congregation announced it was suspending operations “and closing our building through March 29, effective immediately. During this period, all worship services, Gan classes, Religious School classes, programs and events will be canceled. Our dedicated clergy and staff team will work remotely to support the entire community through this process, and will be accessible through email per usual,” the synagogue announced.

Similarly, today, the rabbis of Beth Sholom Congregation, Ohev Sholom and Kehilat Pardes announced that “our shuls have collectively made the decision to suspend all in person activities — including all minyanim, educational classes and youth groups — until further notice.

“This decision is guided by the fact that halacha requires us to prioritize the preservation of life. Based on everything we have learned from medical experts, the best way to limit the spread of COVID-19 is through social distancing, even amongst otherwise healthy individuals who are not high risk. Indeed, last night we spoke with Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, DC who told us that it is best to close.”

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