Is it permissible to pay zakat al-fitr in the beginning of Ramadan to help Coronavirus-afflicted families?
Answering your question, Sheikh Mustafa Umar, President of California Islamic University, states:
After fasting the entire month of Ramadan, Muslims have an opportunity to celebrate on the day of Eid. This day is supposed to be enjoyable and fun. People will visit family members, enjoy nice food and wear nice clothes.
However, there is a segment of society that would find it difficult to be able to celebrate this day due to their financial circumstances. Their minds would be preoccupied, even on this day of celebration, with having to fulfill their basic needs for the day.
A solution to this difficulty was instituted by the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) when he announced to his Companions that they must give a certain amount of food in charity before people went to pray the Eid prayer in the morning.
Ibn Umar reported that the Prophet enjoined the payment of one Sa` of dates or one Sa` of barley as Zakat Al-Fitr on every Muslim slave or free, male or female, young or old, and he ordered that it be paid before the people went out to offer the `Id prayer. (Al-Bukhari)
This charity is called Fitrah, Zakat Al-Fiṭr or Sadaqat al-Fitr, which means: the charity for breaking the fast, since it is paid when Ramadan ends and fasting is over.
The Prophet explained that this charity not only feeds the poor and gives them an opportunity to enjoy the day of Eid, but it also serves as a means of spiritual purification from improper speech and actions that may have been committed in the month of Ramadan.
Ibn Abbas said: “The Messenger of Allah enjoined Zakat al-Fitr as a purification for the fasting person from idle talk and obscenities, and to feed the poor. Whoever pays it before the (Eid) prayer, it is an accepted Zakah, and whoever pays it after the prayer, it is (ordinary) charity.” (Ibn Majah)
The obligation to pay the Fitrah begins at dawn on the day of Eid al-Fitr [which is the day after Ramadan], so whoever possesses the minimum amount of wealth at that time must pay. If someone delays payment, the obligation remains and must still be fulfilled, even though it is considered late.
However, it is allowed to pay the Zakat al-Fitr earlier than this, according to many scholars. The Hanafi and Shafi`i schools have allowed this because it is connected with fasting, and fasting begins in the month of Ramadan, so it can be paid at any time during the month, even on the 1st of Ramadan.
They also explained that since Zakah can be paid early, so can Zakat al-Fitr. Other scholars quoted the report that Ibn ʿUmar said, “They [the Muslims during the Prophet’s time] used to give al-Fitr one or two days before [Eid]” (Al-Bukhari)
However, this report is not a clear prohibition that paying it earlier would not be allowed. Especially in circumstances where it can be difficult to get the money to the most deserving people, it is even recommended to pay it as early as possible, as long as it is in Ramadan.
Based on this understanding,
There is nothing wrong with paying zakat al-Fitr in the beginning of Ramadan to help Coronavirus-afflicted families.
Almighty Allah knows best.