With the U.S. State of Florida, and within it Alachua County, in Phase One of Reopening from COVID-19 lockdown, ISKCON’s New Raman Reti temple in Alachua has also started phase one of a gradual reopening process with careful restrictions.
To do so, Temple President Mukhya Dasi is consulting local government recommendations, as well as her own committee consisting of two phsyicians, one nurse, and two members of management. She’s also taking guidance from Nila Madhava Das, a doctor, anesthesiologist and member of the COVID-19 team at Baltimore’s Northwest Hospital. Nila Madhava serves as temple president of ISKCON Baltimore, and is also beginning to reopen his temple with similar precautions.
Mukhya cautions that the gradual reopening at ISKCON Alachua is a trial run, and that the temple will continue to monitor Coronavirus cases in the Alachua area, where the rate of positive results from testing is currently low. “If cases goes up too much in our area, we will cut back; if the virus continues its current trend, we will probably continue as planned,” she says.
ISKCON Alachua began phase 1a of its plan a week ago. This phase allows one individual or one family who has been sheltering at home together in the same household to sign up for a time slot, and lead a kirtan during one arati on a particular day.
The individual or family leading are the only people present in the temple room besides pujaris. They are also asked to use hand sanitizer or wash their hands with soap and water before entering, wear masks, offer obeisances standing up, and stay at least six feet away from each other. The person leading kirtan may remove their mask, while the others should keep their masks on while joining in the kirtan. (Alachua County is a mandatory mask-wearing county.)
Scheduled class givers are also giving class at the temple, with their mask-wearing family members as the in-person attendees and everyone else watching online.
On Sunday May 24th, Phase 1b will begin, with the temple restarting Sunday Deity Darshan from 4:15pm to 6:30pm with restrictions.
As visitors drive in at the temple property entrance, they will be asked to stop at the Guard Desk and answer a series of questions, such as “Do you have a cough, fever, or shortness of breath?” “Does anyone you live with have any of these symptoms?” and “Has anyone in your house arrived from out of state or out of the country in the last 14 days?”
They will also be requested to give their name and telephone number for contact tracing purposes – if anyone later tests COVID-19 positive, temple leaders can immediately contact other devotees who attended that day’s functions so that they can get tested.
Finally, visitors will be given a quick temperature check with a no-contact infrared thermometer. Those who have a fever (a temperature of 100 degrees or higher) will be asked to return home.
Once again, everyone will be asked to wash their hands before coming to the temple, and use hand sanitizer provided by a greeter before entering the building at one specific entry point – the ladies’ side door next to Srila Prabhupada.
Everyone must wear their own mask, brought from home, including any children over two years old. Cotton masks will be available through the local Hare Krishna Social Services for $2 each for those who do not have any. “Your mask protects me, my mask protects you,” explains a recent ISKCON Alachua community newsletter. “We are a community that cares about each other. Anyone not wearing a mask at the temple will be asked to leave.”
The attendant at the door will allow up to three persons at a time to enter for darshan, and will ask each group to leave after several minutes so that the next group can enter. Everyone will of course be requested to remain at least six feet apart while at the temple.
On their way out in their cars, visitors will be able to pick up a box of Krishna prasadam, which will be placed in their car through the back window.
Out of care for their safety, devotees are requested to assess their own personal risk and state of health. “We are urging everyone who is vulnerable to this disease to continue sheltering at home, such as senior citizens with underlying health conditions, including but not limited to diabetes, high blood pressure or auto immune diseases,” the ISKCON Alachua newsletter cautions.
For those who stay home, the temple programs continue to be broadcast online at ISKCON Alachua’s Youtube channel, and many virtual classes, kirtans and other resources from all over the world are shared in the weekly newsletter. The temple is also providing grocery shoppers for senior citizens and those at higher risk, and can deliver Sunday Feast prasad to them.
On the way out from the temple, visitors can pick up takeaway prasadam
Most other ISKCON temples in North America are still in total lockdown, with many likely to remain so until June or July. However, the structures set up by ISKCON Alachua and Baltimore may provide a blueprint for others when they do begin to reopen.
While the restrictions are strict, they are important to follow because they allow devotees and guests to attend the temple to some capacity and feel some community while keeping everyone as safe as possible.
“We care a lot that the devotees don’t get sick; we don’t want illness to spread within our community,” Mukhya says. “Also, they now do contact tracing, so as you can imagine, if one person visiting the temple comes down with Coronavirus and gets hospitalized, it would be traced right back to the temple, everyone here would have to get tested and it could result in our temple having to shut down completely. So it’s important that we’re careful.”
She sympathizes. “I know it’s very hard. This is not a lifestyle that we’re used to. But I hope we will take our devotional principles to heart – we are a group of people who care about each other, love each other, and want to see the best for each other. So it seems natural that we would all want to be cautious around each other. I’m hoping that that will happen.”
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