Over the past few days a large collection of Orthodox doctors from across the country issued a statement explaining why, based on their medical expertise, the Orthodox community should maintain strict social distancing standards and refrain from minyan, weddings, funerals, etc. even if government regulations are relaxed. Speaking from a halakhic perspective, Rav Asher Weiss, released a video (highly recommended for those who understand Hebrew; here is a short version in English ) explaining that even if the Israeli Ministry of Health is relaxing some of strictures on some social and business activity, the Orthodox community should adhere to stricter standards that favor social distancing over public religious rituals.
At the same time, we see movement by political leaders in both Israel and certain parts of the US to begin reopening the economy. This invariably leads to the question as to why Jewish rituals should be held to a higher standards than bowling alleys, tattoo parlors and movie theaters which the Gov. of Georgia has proposed to reopen.
In my view, the core issue here is to distinguish between the logic of flattening the curve and the logic, pikuach nefesh (PN), the principle of Jewish law which explains that most of halakhah is preempted by the need to save lives.
As we all know, there is no known cure for COVID, only better and worse ways for the medical system to manage the symptoms and complications of the virus.
Flatten the curve— In the classic models, the “area under the curve” (representing the number of COVID cases) remains the same whether the curve is flat or spiked. The primary reason to try and flatten the curve is not to reduce the overall rate of infection, but to prolong the timeline over which the infection will roll (or roil) through a population. Though it hopefully saves lives, it is designed to save a specific type of life: that of a patient who would survive the virus if treated under first rate medical care, but who may not be able to access that care if the system is over-taxed by too many patients. By stretching out the time horizon through which infections take place, the goal is to have only as many infected (and derivatively– hospitalized) patients as the system can handle under ideal or near ideal circumstances.
Of course real life rarely works out like a model, and there may be ancillary benefits to buying time. We hope a treatment or vaccine will be developed or the virus will die out or we find other ways to mitigate the overall rate of infection rate—all of which should reduce the total number of cases/fatalities by flattening the curve. Yet, at least initially, these are not the primary purposes of flattening the curve..
Pikuach nefesh (PN) by contrast is geared towards saving all lives— regardless of the capacities of the healthcare system. From a PN perspective, delaying the death of an at-risk patient from COVID by two months is a success, even if the patient ultimately dies from COVID in a way that no amount of medical intervention could have avoided. PN logic thus does not distinguish between whether the patient will die with or without the best medical care, the focus is on preventing all COVID deaths, not just those caused by inadequate medical care due to overburdening.
Initially the logic of the two concepts seemed to work together, but they now seem to be splitting apart. If, as the Gov. of Georgia seems to claim, a region’s health system has ample capacity, flatten the curve logic may argue for opening things up because the health system can handle the patients and manage the fallout while reaping the benefits of opening the economy. By contrast, PN logic dictates that since there is no cure, it is near certain that more people will die as the infection rate increases—regardless of whether the medical system is over-taxed— we should maintain as many of the restrictions as possible.
Thus as a matter of political morality, it might not be crazy to think that the economy should be opened up at the point where the flatten the curve logic states that an otherwise savable life will not be sacrificed. Thus to the extent a patient would die from COVID even under the optimal medical treatment, the cost/benefit analysis of shutting the economy to prevent death might tilt towards opening things up. Read charitably, (ok, VERY charitably), this is the argument that some of the “open up America ” politicians are making. (The counter argument is that the virus grows silently and exponentially and by the time policymakers know whether their gamble has paid off it will be too late to shift course and there will be unnecessary deaths.)
By contrast, while neither halakhah or life can keep things shut until there is no risk, under the present conditions of uncertainty, it is easy to see why poskim such as Rav Asher reach a different conclusion.