At Hotels or at Home, Passover Plans are Thrown into Chaos


Most years, Nisa Harris, her husband and three children spend Passover with her parents. But this year was supposed to be even more special, with her family, her parents and her five brothers set to spend Passover together at a hotel in Pennsylvania to celebrate her father finishing chemotherapy.

“We were all really looking forward to it,” said Harris, 35, who lives in Plano, Texas.

But when coronavirus cases began appearing in Israel, one of her brothers, a doctor living there, had to cancel. Another brother, also living in Israel, had to quarantine after a coworker tested positive for the virus. And last week, Harris’ parents decided to cancel their reservation, worried that the risk was too high for Harris’ father.

“I went Pesach shopping to get the bare minimum,” said Harris, pondering the possibility of spending her first Passover with just her husband and children, away from her parents. And as a nurse who will soon be screening patients for coronavirus at the clinics where she works, she doesn’t know if she will be exposed to the virus. “I don’t know what my story is going to be,” she said.

With just three weeks before Passover begins, those who were planning to skip the Passover cleaning and cooking to relax at a kosher beach resort or at a hotel in a foreign country are beginning to rethink their plans. With much of the country on a near lockdown and airlines grounding planes in the face of nearly empty flights, the possibility of a trip to a Passover hotel is looking increasingly doubtful.

“No one’s ever seeing anything like this,” said Elan Kornblum, president and publisher of Great Kosher Restaurants, a website and Facebook group connecting kosher restaurants and consumers. “A lot of them are going to go out of business.”

He explained that Passover program operators typically make deposits to hotels and caterers six to eight weeks in advance. For most of the programs, the deposits are nonrefundable, meaning they will lose substantial amounts of money if they or customers cancel.

“Programs are going to wait until the last possible moment” before cancelling, said Kornblum. “If, somehow, in two weeks things are much better, then they’ve shot themselves in the foot.”

Some programs have already decided to cancel, including Mark David Caterers at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix and Presidential Kosher Holidays, which has programs in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Riviera Maya, Mexico. Some 1,400 people were expected to attend the Presidential programs.

“Since our original update about the coronavirus, it has become a worldwide pandemic, a national emergency, and the situation is only getting worse with more restrictions being added and the numbers increasing exponentially,” the Presidential Kosher Holidays program wrote in a note to customers. “Therefore, we have concluded that it is medically imprudent, morally indefensible, and simply not responsible to run our 2020 Passover programs as planned.”

The Kosherica program in Florida sent an email to guests asking for their input on whether to proceed with the program or cancel, either with a 65 percent refund, or a voucher towards next year’s program. Operators of The Great Kosher Escape programs offered a similar set of choices; guests can receive a refund of 50 percent of the program cost and apply 50 percent of it to the 2021 program, receive a 70 percent refund or proceed with the program as planned. Both programs told guests they would need 85 percent of guests to agree to proceed with the program as planned in order to avoid cancellation.

Some who were planning to travel for Passover are now making alternate plans. Aaron Keyak, a political consultant in Washington, D.C., was planning to travel to Israel for Passover with his family. But when restrictions were put in place there requiring all travelers to quarantine themselves for 14 days upon arrival, he started looking into Passover programs here in the United States. By the time the NBA canceled its season last week, he and his wife decided they had to stay home. “We were thinking of having a few people over for seder and we might not even do it,” said Keyak.

Asked if he was starting to think about how he would make Passover at home, Keyak had other things on his mind. “I’m thinking less about how I’m going to lead a seder or kasher a home than I am about my mother who would be in the risky category,” he said.

Shayna Weiss, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, was planning to spend Passover at Camp Ramah Darom in Georgia as a scholar-in-residence until they canceled the program on Monday. She said she would consider spending Passover with friends in the New York or New Jersey area if it’s safe to do so and is doing her Passover shopping at a local kosher grocery store in Boston to support a local business. But for the moment, she said, “it doesn’t feel prudent to really plan anything at this point.”