For at least this weekend, and possibly for many weeks to come, hundreds of thousands of Western New Yorkers will be changing their worship practices, thanks to the COVID-19 virus.
Many religious institutions are either suspending religious services, asking their church members to watch them online, or temporarily relieving church members from the obligation to attend services.
These unprecedented moves are a response to growing concerns about the COVID-19 virus and its effect on public health. And nobody knows how long the changes will last.
“Public health officials are saying it could be months,” said Pastor Pat Jones of the Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in Amherst. “We don’t know at this point. We’ll all just have to keep watch over each other as long as this lasts.”
The bishop in charge of the Buffalo Diocese told the region’s more than 500,000 Catholics Friday that they will not be obligated to attend Mass for at least this weekend and next weekend. The Masses will still be held.
Meanwhile, Episcopal churches have suspended Sunday services altogether.
Leaders of Eastern Hills Wesleyan, the Chapel at CrossPoint and the region’s largest Jewish congregation told their members not to attend weekend services and asked them to watch livestreamed services.
Members of True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo and Niagara Falls were told by their pastor, Darius Pridgen, that their church services will not be open to the public; Pridgen asked them to use their computers to watch streamed services.
“We’ve never had to do this before in my 25 years as pastor. We’ve always kept our doors open, even during blizzards and power outages,” Pridgen told The Buffalo News. “We don’t want people to panic, but we do want them to be safe. Our goal is prevention. Even though we have no known cases of coronavirus in this community so far, we don’t want our churches to become breeding grounds for this virus.”
What effect will these concerns have on major events like weddings, funerals, confirmations and bar mitzvahs in the months ahead? That is not yet known.
“We’re following the directives of the governor, the Erie County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control. Basically, we’re using common sense,” said Jeff Clark, executive director of Temple Beth Zion, the region's largest Jewish congregation. "We're using common sense."
Bishop Sean Rowe, leader of the Episcopal Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York, suspended Sunday worship and other diocesan events.
“The COVID-19 epidemic is spreading so quickly that I cannot in good conscience permit gatherings that could easily hasten the spread of the disease and contribute to the collapse of our health care system,” Rowe said in a letter made public Friday. “As Christians, we are obligated to care for our neighbors and the vulnerable among us, and in the circumstances now before us, we can best do that by helping to slow the spread of the virus.”
Church leaders said they were complying with a directive issued Thursday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who banned public gatherings of more than 500 people and ordered facilities holding up to 500 people for an event to cut attendance levels to a maximum of half-capacity.
Most of the hundreds of churches in Western New York do not attract more than 250 people to their services, but some do.
Officials at the Chapel at CrossPoint in Amherst – believed to be the region’s biggest church – said its Sunday services often attract up to 2,300 people. Sunday services at Eastern Hills Wesleyan often attract 1,100 or more.
The Chapel said it will continue to have services at its much smaller locations in Lockport, Cheektowaga and Niagara Falls.
Pridgen said Sunday services at True Bethel’s largest church on East Ferry Street “quite often attract 600 to 800 people.”
“My concern is having hundreds of people in a confined space,” Pridgen said. “A lot of the people who attend church service are the elderly, who would be most at risk for catching this virus. If people at our church were exposed to someone with the virus, they could be quarantined for two weeks. That’s what we’re trying so hard to prevent.”
The biggest Catholic church in the region is St. Gregory the Great in Amherst. The Rev. Leon J. Biernat, the pastor, said Sunday Masses often bring in more than 1,000 people.
"We are prepared to have Masses in three different locations on our property should it be needed," Biernat said.
Many local churches, including St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Eden said they are continuing Sunday services, but doing all they can to eliminate physical contact between worshipers.
“We will be eliminating most forms of physical contact for the time being,” leaders of the Eden church said on Facebook. “This includes greetings as we enter or leave church, including hand shaking or hugging. As you arrive, you will be picking up your own bulletins. The offering plate will not be passed. Rather, the plate will be available for you to give as you enter or leave the church.”
Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger said he is temporarily suspending the obligation to attend Mass for the region’s Catholics in hope of preventing “widespread infection.”
"Until further notice, Catholics of the Diocese of Buffalo should use their prudent judgment as to whether or not to attend Mass,” the bishop said. “At this time, Mass will continue to be offered publicly as announced or scheduled, contingent on emergency governmental restrictions regarding larger gatherings. All other parish events and larger celebrations, including Confirmations and Lenten penance services, must be postponed until the end of March.”
He said further announcements will be made as the situation evolves.
The news created unease for local Catholics, including Debra Erickson, 63, of the Town of Tonawanda, who attends St. Amelia Church and sings in the choir.
“There will be no choir for at least the next two weeks, and I don’t really know yet whether I’m going to Mass,” Erickson said. “I’m a diabetic, so I have to be extra careful to avoid being exposed to the virus. These are very anxious times. You don’t really know what’s going on, and some people are in a panic.”
Erickson said she is thankful for Cuomo's daily updates to residents of New York State.