The Great Neck Synagogue Re-Opening Committee has met at least weekly throughout the pandemic to discuss how the shul may be re-opened and guided back towards normality in a manner that is medically safe and legally compliant. The Committee thought it would be helpful to share the rationale behind these most recent changes to our protocols.
Mask Wearing. Although the CDC announced last week that it is revising its guidance so that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks in most indoor or outdoor settings, that standard has not yet been adopted into New York law. New York’s Department of Health has promulgated rules that apply to synagogues in New York State, which still require mask-wearing and social distancing, subject to certain exceptions. New York’s rules have from their inception permitted congregants in a house of worship not to wear masks when in socially distant seating (defined as at least six feet away from the seats of other congregants). Those rules, however, have required congregants to wear masks at all other times on synagogue premises, including any time that they come within 6 feet of other congregants. The Committee’s medical advisors made the decision to require masks when in socially distant seats as an appropriate extra safety precaution when the pandemic was more widespread and when vaccination was non-existent or limited. The medical advisors are comfortable with now having fully vaccinated people remove masks when seated. There has been no relevant change in New York law, so, to comply with that law, we must continue to require masking for everyone in all indoor settings other than when in socially distant seating.
Seating “Pods”. The New York rules for seating groups in religious institutions reference those groups as comprising “households.” However, current New York rules for analogous settings, such as restaurants and movie theaters (where people are indoors, choose to sit in proximity with a group that they have voluntarily chosen, stay for a similar period of time, and may be speaking), permit small groups to be seated together from outside of single household. For example, New York rules permit a small group of friends to sit together without masks at a restaurant table. New York State’s most recent May 3 announcement about the social distancing protocols that are set to continue after venue capacity limits are terminated on May 19 referred to seating groups of “parties of patrons” in a variety of venues including “houses of worship.” In light of the Supreme Court decisions holding that under the Equal Protection Clause state law restrictions on religious activities may not differ from those imposed on equivalent secular activities, as well as New York’s apparent recognition of this principle in its May 3 announcement, our Committee is comfortable that New York does not seek to impose a “household” limitation that differs from the “parties of patrons” approach taken in analogous secular settings. If anything, we remain more cautious than restaurants and movie theaters as we are limiting our groupings to fully vaccinated people. However, given the current lack of explicit guidance in this area, and our expectation that the religious institution rules will need to be revised to reflect New York’s May 3 announcement and any adoption of the CDC’s May 13 announcement, the Committee is taking an approach that it believes is medically and legally prudent in allowing some seating in groups beyond “households.”
Outdoor Mask Wearing. We do not require masks for fully vaccinated people outdoors based on the CDC’s April 27 guidance which was adopted into New York state law that day. That rule was limited to people who are fully vaccinated. It also was limited to settings that are not crowded. While the CDC guidance has been superseded by last Thursday’s CDC announcement, the New York law standard has not been similarly superseded. As a result, the Committee still intends to exercise judgment about what outdoor settings might still require masks, even for fully vaccinated persons.
Proof of Vaccination. We are not presently requiring proof of vaccination status because we have relied on an honor system up to now for all other aspects of personal compliance (such as recent travel, symptoms or exposure) and there is no legal requirement that we obtain that information. We would prefer that the synagogue not have responsibility for obtaining or storing its members’ confidential health-related information. This may change if, for example, New York requires that we obtain proof of vaccination as part of implementing the most recent CDC guidance.