After months under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some ISKCON temples around the world are gradually starting to reopen in phases, with safety restrictions in place according to their local government recommendations.
After being closed to the public since March 22nd, the ISKCON temple in Mount Airy, Philadelphia reopened on June 6th for Darshan only during limited hours. The move took place several days after the Governor of Pennsylvania declared that Philadelphia had entered into the “Yellow” phase.
Guests can attend the temple for Darshan from 6:30 to 8:00pm Monday to Saturday, and from 11:30am to 12:30pm and 5:45 to 7:15pm on Sunday. Everyone must have their temperature taken using a no-touch thermometer, and must bring and wear their own masks, use hand sanitizer, and sign in before entering. To ensure that social distancing is practiced, only four people at a time, or one whole family, are allowed into the temple room. As recommended by several devotee doctors, obeisances must be offered in a standing position.
Caranamrita is served in disposable cups, and boxed maha sweets are available for guests. Sunday Feast prasadam is also distributed, take-out style, every Sunday evening via curbside pickups.
Meanwhile other activities continue online, including a daily morning Bhagavatam class and some evening classes over Zoom, daily Deity Darshan on social media, and over-the-phone book distribution.
“Many in the community were patiently and eagerly awaiting the chance to see the Lord’s Deity form, and during opening weekend we had a good turnout,” says vice president Dronacharya Das. “At the same time, there are some devotees and guests that choose not to come out, and are waiting until they feel the situation is safer for them.”
As far as the future is concerned, he says, “If all goes well, the green phase will likely come within a month of the yellow phase. At that time, we will evaluate opening up the temple for morning and evening programs at a limited capacity, based on government guidelines. In order to manage the number of people attending temple programs, we will likely adopt an RSVP system.”
A devotee pays her respects to Srila Prabhupada at ISKCON Philadelphia, USA
Krishna Valley was one of the first temples in ISKCON to close down during the pandemic, with the Hungarian Hare Krishna community deciding to go into self-quarantine even before Gaura Purnima on March 9th.
The rural community’s temple and restaurant reopened immediately after the Hungarian government eased restrictions all over the country at the beginnning of June. Currently, guests are allowed to visit all ISKCON Hungary’s temples and have lunch at ISKCON restaurants, as long as they use hand sanitizer provided at the entrance, wear masks, and practice social distancing inside the buildings.
With Krishna Valley receiving many phone calls from people who have been waiting a long time to enter the community, devotees are also set to organize several programs for tourists. “We will plan them very carefully, so that people can keep social distance and be safe,” says ISKCON Hungary spokesperson Gandharvika Prema Dasi.
Although the lockdown afforded devotees the chance to develop their online activities and start some innovative virtual initiatives, they are glad to finally be able to meet the people they got to know through the Internet over the last few months.
“As the saying goes, ‘separation makes the heart grow fonder,’” says Gandharvika Prema. “Many devotees feel so much relief to meet others and have some personal interaction after being stuck in separation for such a long time.”
Radha Syamasundara is ready to receive guests again in Krishna Valley
Over three months since lockdown began in early March, Australia’s Melbourne temple is allowed to welcome twenty congregational members for aratis, under strict protocols such as mask wearing, social distancing, and booking online.
Classes and all other programs remain online only. Resident brahmacaris and brahmacharinis run ongoing temple services, as well as a free meal delivery program for those in need, distributing 500 to 600 prasadam meals a week.
Some householders come to do specific services and leave as soon as they are completed.
According to Australian ISKCON Communications Director Bhakta Das, in one month the government will allow fifty people to enter, then beyond that one hundred, and so on.
“The temple is keen to open again, as our finances are severely impeded as you can imagine,” he says.
Villa Vrindavana in Italy, one of the first countries to feel the effects of COVID-19, was closed down from Gaura Purnima (March 9th) until May 23rd. Over the May 23rd weekend, devotees reopened access to the temple, and since the beginning of June, Govinda’s restaurant is also open on weekends.
“In Italy we are in phase 3,” says temple president Parabhakti Das. “Activities are reopened, but people must still wear masks in closed spaces, and social distance must always be maintained even outside in parks and beaches. There is great concern for the future of the economy, because this emergency has put companies, institutions, associations and even religions in major crisis. Everyone has had to cancel and minimize all their programs.”
Most programs at Villa Vrindavana are now being held outside in the garden. Access to the temple is regulated – any visitors must report no COVID-19 sympoms, and must wear masks and keep social distance. Sunday Feast prasadam is distributed in disposable paper plates.
“Devotees are very happy, especially for the association,” says Parabhakti. “Slowly, we are reopening ashram access to those who previously habitually came to do service, and we are planning the reopening of the guest house - all with reduced numbers compared to the past.”
Currently, the temple is only open to guests on the weekend, with programs continuing online throughout the week. Access will be expanded to all days shortly.
All spring and summer festivals remain canceled. With Florence Rathayatra among them, resident temple devotees who have quarantined together throughout – and thus do not need to use protective measures amongst each other – held a forest procession with small Jagannath Deities recently. Villa Vrindavana’s well-known Sravanam Kirtanam kirtan festival will be held online in July.
Future phases, according to Parabhakti, will be gradual, and it will not be possible to return to normal life again soon.
“There is much concern about what will happen in the autumn when temperatures drop and there are more favorable conditions for the spread of viruses, so no one is really speaking of the long term,” he says. “What is certain is that people’s lifestyle will tend to remain different for the next few years. So we must prepare ourselves to find the most effective way to teach Krishna consciousness in these new scenarios.”
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