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If churches and restaurants can prove safety, state has shown wise flexibility

We are, perhaps inevitably, at a place where patience is wearing thin. With construction restarting in Western New York this week and retail reopening on a restricted basis, other endeavors, including churches and restaurants, are understandably frustrated and even jealous. They also want to begin the journey back to normal. They should make their case, but be prepared to wait.

Both are suffering. Churches are prevented from pursuing their spiritual mission while restaurants, limited for two months to takeout orders, are under financial strain severe enough to threaten their existence. Their arguments for reopening now have holes in them, but the state has shown a willingness to rethink its policies when the evidence is clear. It did just that on Wednesday regarding religious gatherings.

Speaking at his daily press briefing, Cuomo acknowledged the comfort that church services can bring to the faithful and opened the way for gatherings of no more than 10 people who must wear masks and adhere to safe social distancing practices. It was a thoughtful decision, demonstrating a valuable flexibility where the overriding issue of the public health allows it.

“I think even at this time of stress and when people are so anxious and so confused, I think those religious ceremonies can be very comforting,” he said, “but we need to find out how to do it and do it safely and do it smartly.

“The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony that winds up having more people infected,” he said.

That surely is what would have happened had the state accepted the nonsensical comparison some church leaders made with drive-in movie theaters, which were allowed to reopen last week. With comparatively easy modifications, drive-ins are social distancing nirvanas.

Churches aren’t, and it’s been well documented that although their missions are spiritual, their congregations are corporeal and fully subject to the ravages of Covid-19. Like restaurants and other enterprises that require or encourage closeness, they need to be guided by the science of disease prevention.

And, like it or not, in a pandemic such as this, there has to be an authority. In this country, that can be no other than state governments and New Yorkers are fortunate that this state is being driven by science, not wishful thinking, and by concern for the health of its residents, not by a mad dash for the finish line.

That’s why New York drew up a four-phase reopening plan for each of the state’s 10 regions, starting with the least risky operations and allowing up to two weeks between phases. That’s the believed lapse of time between the onset of infection and the appearance of symptoms, though new research suggests the lag could be longer.

In that plan, restaurants are in phase three, putting them at least another three weeks from reopening. Churches, under the original plan, would reopen two weeks after that, in phase 4. For reasons anyone can understand, they’re not happy. Then, again, happiness isn’t the goal.

Those institutions should make their cases, understanding they have hurdles to clear. How will well attended churches keep social distance among parishioners? How will restaurants achieve that need, along with protecting the safety of staff and diners? How will bathrooms be kept safe and free of Covid-19? What if, under the first two phases, hospital admissions start spiking again?

Perhaps the churches and restaurants will be able to demonstrate an ability to proceed safely. If so, New York, has shown a willingness to reconsider its protocols when the evidence is persuasive: The Western New York region began its reopening sooner than anticipated after the state reevaluated (though by Wednesday, hospitalizations began rising again). It’s starting a pilot project on whether to allow visitors back into hospitals. And on Wednesday, it permitted small religious gatherings and encouraged churches to look for ways to adapt the template of drive-in theaters.

It’s about science and data. If they can satisfy both, then there is reason to believe Albany will listen. If not, there is reason to believe that patience is the greater virtue.

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