A Lonely Passover in Miami as COVID-19 Death Toll Mounts Across U.S.

Florida is among the 10 hardest-hit states with 19,895 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Sunday; death toll climbs in N.Y.C. as U.S. crosses 22,000 dead

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A COVID-19 testing site in Miami Beach, April 5
A COVID-19 testing site in Miami Beach, April 5Credit: AFP

Jewish families across the United States spent Passover this week in solitude and resorted to technology to connect with loved ones as the national death count due to COVID-19 mounted. As of writing, the coronavirus-related death toll in the U.S. alone had passed 22,000.

On Easter Sunday, 671 people died from COVID-19 in New York, Andrew Cuomo said Monday, raising the city's death toll to 10,056.

Sarah and Yehudah Benjamin, Orthodox Jews living in Miami, had not done a Seder alone for 43 years. They married just before Passover in 1977, had always children, grandchildren and guests at their Pesach table, until this year.

“It was less work,” Sarah Benjamin, 66, jested, but qualified that the virtual sight of her children and grandchildren made the situation “really hit”.

“It was very wistful, I didn’t expect it to be, but it really was,” she said.

Florida is among the 10 hardest-hit states in the U.S. with 19,895 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Sunday evening. According to the Florida Health Department, many of the cases are concentrated in the southwest part of the state, home to half a million Jews. In Miami-Dade county the COVID-19 caseload stood at 7,058, Broward county reported 2,945 cases and Palm Beach county had 1,646 cases of the coronavirus as of Sunday evening.

Florida’s Jewish population also has the largest share of seniors: a third of Florida Jews are 65 or older, thus more vulnerable to COVID-19, according to an estimate of the American Jewish population by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute in the fall of 2019.

Sarah and Yehudah Benjamin only moved to Miami recently to be close to three of their children and their families, but another five remain in New York, the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus crisis. Three have been sick recently, and suspect they had the virus. Two lost their jobs.

“In the beginning we were, I guess as everybody was, somewhat skeptical of the lengths you need to go to protect yourself but as more and more information came through, as we went through the days, we got smarter,” Yehudah Benjamin, 70, said.

The couple, who is in the age group at highest risk, limit their ventures outside: they go for walks down the street and see their children and grandchildren from a distance. They avoid visits to the grocery, and since deliveries are not functioning at their best in the area, they have relied on one of their daughters for their food shopping.

“We came to Miami mostly to help her, and we’re not any help at all,” Sarah Benjamin said. “The older people like us are trying not to do anything in public, although it’s very difficult. While it’s hard for us, we have a yard, we can go out, we have each other,” she added. “I know of elderly people who have not been out in three or four weeks at all. These are people who had Seder by themselves: they have big families, extended families and they always get together and they’re just alone in their apartments.”

In their neighborhood, around the Surfside, Bal Harbor area, the Jewish community was among the first to shut down, already in the second week of March.

“There are two main shuls here. Both their rabbis tested positive right after Purim which is actually a blessing because everything shut down right then,” Sarah Benjamin said.

In New York State, home to the largest Jewish community in the country, 758 people died of the virus on Saturday alone, Governor Cuomo said in his daily briefing on Sunday, but added that the mortality rate, along with the number of hospitalizations appears to have stabilized over the past few days.

The total number of deaths in New York State attributed to COVID-19 crisis stood at 9,385 on Sunday. Over the weekend, Cuomo said that state authorities have been “working very hard in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland’’ counties, all surrounding suburbs of New York City with large Jewish communities. So far we’ve had hot spots but we’ve attacked them aggressively and we believe that we have stabilized the situation,” he said.

In New York City, where most of the state’s cases are concentrated, Mayor Bill De Blasio said on Sunday, that the past week had been “very tough” in the hospitals. “We lost some of our loved ones, we lost some of our fellow New Yorkers. It’s so painful to think about,” he said.

“But we thought it was going to be something even much worse. I know today and everyday in this holiday season, people are finding a way to connect to your loved ones, to stay connected as best we can,” the mayor added, and wished a happy Easter and Passover to those celebrating: “Thank you for keeping traditions alive, even when it’s hard, thank you for your faith.”

The Benjamins had lived in Brooklyn, New York for decades and maintain close ties to their Orthodox community there. Every day they learn about more people they knew who died of COVID-19. “Miami is like a suburb of New York so we know many people now in New York who have died and gotten very sick,” Sarah Benjamin said. “It’s not like on the news. We know these people.”

“It’s one after the other and it’s really shocking,” Yehudah Benjamin added.

As of writing, the U.S. was leading the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases with over 560,433 people who have tested positive for the infection, and 22,115 deaths. The global total was 1,867,130 cases, with 115,279 deaths.

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