June 7, 2021
Assessing Risk as SFZC Slowly Reopens

Buddhas and grass

by Tova Green

The SFZC Health and Safety committee was formed soon after the pandemic began. Initially it consisted of the SFZC President and the directors of City Center, Green Gulch Farm, and Tassajara. The committee began reaching out by email to Michael Gelfond and Grace Dammann, both longtime Zen students, for medical advice when questions came up in their meetings. The committee soon began to regularly include the two physicians in their meetings. At first the committee met twice a week; now it meets weekly.

Michael and Grace, who are both retired clinicians, also regularly consult with other physicians on behalf of the H&S committee, including Rick Levine, Frances Herb, Andrea Thach, Robert Brody, and Neal Halfon, all of whom have long relationships with SFZC and Zen practice.

I spoke with Michael Gelfond regarding SFZC’s reopening to the public.

Michael said, “We are trying to negotiate the reopening as safely as possible—and there’s a lot that is not yet known about this pandemic. We’ve all tried hard for fifteen months to provide as close as we could to 100% protection for SFZC residents. We really want to open the doors of the temples but want to do it in a way that protects both the physical health and the sense of safety of the people who live in them.”

City Center, Green Gulch Farm, and Tassajara are not simply religious institutions like churches, Michael noted, because they are places where residents live and many of those residents are in high-risk health categories. The world is in a dynamic state with respect to the pandemic.  Some factors are not completely understood or may be changing, for example: How well are vaccinated people protected from new variants? Is it possible for vaccinated people to transmit the virus to those who are unvaccinated? There are many hot spots around the world where the virus is spiking and people may be flying into the U.S. from some of those places. The H&S Committee recognizes that there is no way to guarantee that reopening will be completely safe and therefore wants to proceed cautiously and with as much information as is available at any given time.

Michael’s medical career was in clinical Emergency Medicine, not in Public Health. Nevertheless, it is reassuring for the Health and Safety Committee to have his perspective as a doctor. “It’s been helpful for all of us to get together and talk things over, while understanding the limits of our knowledge. It’s rare that there are questions that have clear yes/no answers. It’s often about probabilities, about making judgment calls about how much risk is involved in each step toward reopening.”

San Francisco Zen Center offers gratitude and 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.