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May 25, 2021

Why Hasn’t San Francisco Zen Center Opened Yet?

Three locations - GGF, CC, ZMC

As Bay Area Covid-19 risk assessment tiers turn from orange (moderate) to yellow (minimal), the SFZC staff and leadership have been working to determine when the three temples can safely open to the public again. We have been hearing from people who are understandably eager to return to sitting in the zendo, listening to and being present for live Dharma talks, or dipping their feet into the cool waters of Tassajara Creek. They are wondering when they can return to the places that they love and find so nourishing and inspiring.

In the beginning of the pandemic, SFZC quickly assembled a Health & Safety Committee that met weekly to determine the best path forward. Today the committee consists of the Directors of City Center, Tassajara, and Green Gulch Farm, the SFZC President, and a group of medical professionals who have a better understanding of the latest thinking on the science behind the pandemic and its spread. It is this group that has been setting the policies and cadence of our opening plan and has been in on-going dialogue with the local county health departments.

There are several factors and considerations that need to be balanced in order to open, as SFZC is both a congregate living space and a public place of practice.

Residential Living

While each of the three SFZC locations is unique and has specific concerns, a primary reason we aren’t yet open is that, unlike most businesses, places of worship, and institutions, each SFZC location has a residential community which includes in its population practitioners who are in a high-risk category. For this reason, the committee considers the temples to be much more like skilled nursing facilities than churches or other public areas.

In the assessment of when to open, the committee weighs the risks on the most vulnerable residents of each temple. For instance, there are still many unknown variables including, among other things, the long term effectiveness of vaccines in people with suppressed immune systems, such as the elderly. For now, the committee is in agreement that it’s best to maintain a cautious attitude during this period of transition.

We are grateful that our residents have been careful and mindful to follow high-level restrictions and precautions this past year. We firmly believe that this is why there have been no instances of Covid-19 in any SFZC temple, despite the fact that those living in this communal way can be very vulnerable for such an occurrence.

Staffing

Another important factor is that we’ve lost a lot of our staffing over the past year, both in terms of people leaving SFZC to be with loved ones and the fact that up until recently, we haven’t been able to accept new people into our apprenticeship programs.

Without a fully staffed population, we are unable to run our in-person programs. This is true for all three locations but especially at Tassajara which requires dozens of people to clean cabins, work in the kitchen and dining room, and staff the front office. At City Center, there is just enough staff to run the online zendo, which means the onsite zendo can’t be opened until there are more people available to do so.

We are currently accepting new guest practitioners at a very slow rate, with strict safety protocols still in place.

Plans to Reopen

We are very focused on the question of when we can open our doors to the public. We are moving slowly, cautiously, and with great care both for the residential and wider sangha. While the numbers are good in San Francisco, Marin, and Monterey Counties, the pandemic is at an all-time high worldwide and scientific data on spread rates, variants, mask wearing, and gathering protocols is changing daily.

How will the decision to reopen be made? As mentioned, it will likely be slower and more cautious than other public places, including hotels and other practice centers. The decision will be based on the Health & Safety Committee’s recommendations, our ability to restaff our temples, local guidelines, and fluctuating news about outbreaks and variants.

We are looking ahead and making plans for the day when there will be more public access to our temples, possibly even this Fall. In the meantime, here are some ways we are beginning to offer access to our buildings, opportunities to participate in practice events, and sangha interaction.

  • As the City Center Conference Center at 308 Page Street is a non-residential building, it is now available to rent for small conferences and meetings, photo shoots, yoga and movement classes, etc.
  • We are organizing an outdoor Sangha Bike and Hike event for late June; more information will be available soon.
  • Tassajara and City Center are currently accepting applications for incoming guest and work practice students.
  • We have opened applications (due August 5) for a 90-day residential retreat at Tassajara which begins September 13.

We want nothing more than to open our doors and welcome back our friends and Sangha members. Every day we assess this possibility and take what steps we can towards making it happen. As soon as it is possible to reopen, we will let everyone know through our Sangha News email list (sign up here) and on our social media channels (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter).

Until then, please continue to practice with us in spirit and, of course, online. Thank you for your patience and support.

May 27, 2021

San Francisco Zen Center offers a special and heartfelt thank you and deep bows of appreciation to the physicians who have given their time and expertise to our Health & Safety Committee: Rick Levine, Frances Herb, Andrea Thach, Robert Brody, Neal Halfon, Grace Dammon, and Michael Gelfond.

Read more from covid-19, Features