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Filling churches to 25% capacity is now allowed; bishop says Catholic Mass may resume

Filling churches to 25% capacity is now allowed; bishop says Catholic Mass may resume

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St. Louis Church Mass Social Distancing COVID-19  HICKEY

A small crowd gathered for noon Mass at St. Louis Church in Buffalo on March 13, before the coronavirus closed churches. (John Hickey/News file photo)

Church goers have some reason to rejoice.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has agreed to allow houses of worship to reopen at 25% capacity.

Some would have preferred if the governor chose to spring the news on them during a weekday, and others expressed concern that the continuing coronavirus pandemic would still put in-person services out of reach for many in their folds, but all agreed that the move was a sign in the arc toward normalcy.

"I wish the governor would have done this on Monday, instead of Saturday at noon, so we would have had a little bit more time to get our people ready," said Msgr. David LiPuma, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Basilica.

Still, he said, "Everyone's been hungering to return, to receive the Eucharist, to celebrate Mass at the basilica, so we certainly welcome that."

Cuomo made the announcement during his daily coronavirus briefing. It is effective immediately for churches, temples, mosques and other religious buildings in areas of the state where phase two of the reopening plan is in effect, including Western New York.

Restrictions are needed because Covid-19 remains a threat, he said, particularly in crowded indoor conditions.

"It's not as easy as 100% occupancy, but 100% occupancy is a mass gathering. You really can't do social distancing," the governor said. "We leave it to our faith-based partners to come up with a smart strategy about the way to do this, but this is an acceleration for us because we're doing so well on the metrics."

Edward B. Scharfenberger, interim bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo, said churches that can do so safely may resume public Masses, but the normal obligation of Catholics to attend Sunday Mass has not yet been reinstated.

"Catholics should plan on restricted seating, a change in the reception of Communion in order to ensure social distancing, and other appropriate measures upon entering and exiting churches," according to a statement from the diocesan Office of Communications.

Parishioners should bring masks to church and expect to wear them. If possible, they also should bring a bottle of hand sanitizer to use when arriving, leaving, and before and after receiving Communion, diocesan officials said.

The decision to hold public Masses is in the hands of each pastor.

"Local Catholics are urged to check with their parishes before planning to attend a Mass, as parishes may be at a different stage in their preparations for reopening. The decision to reopen is solely at the discretion of the pastor," diocesan officials said. "In addition, because many priests serving in parishes throughout the Diocese are themselves vulnerable, those priests may choose to (and are encouraged to) opt out of presiding if they have concerns about their personal health and safety."

LiPuma said daily Mass probably will resume Tuesday in Our Lady of Victory Basilica, the 1,000-seat Lackawanna edifice and one of the region's largest churches. A full schedule of five weekend Masses will resume there next week.

He said restarting next week is appropriate because it's the feast of Corpus Christi – the body and blood of Christ – and Communion is the main point of Catholic Mass.

"Everyone is absolutely thrilled to come back," said Father Leon Biernat, pastor of St. Gregory the Great in Amherst, which will hold Masses in its church, the school gym and the ministry center to accommodate everyone next weekend.

The Rev. Steve Biegner, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Eggertsville, said the new requirements will challenge religious leaders and members of their congregations.

"There's clearly going to be a few people who don't understand the full realm of the medical piece of this virus and will say, 'All right, we can go back,' " he said. "They're going to give their pastors and their leadership a lot of grief, which is not necessarily healthy for anyone."

Rabbi Jonathan Freirich, of Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, said his congregation probably won't return soon. "The question is, how can we orient everyone so we can sit separately?" he said.

"We don't think it's going to be a huge problem for us, because most people are still afraid of the coronavirus," said Jay Ayoub, president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Western New York.

Scharfenberger agreed that the new church normal will require unfamiliar adjustments.

“The Catholic faithful of our Diocese have made clear their eagerness to return to their parish churches and to resume their sacramental life with their parish leaders and in communion with their fellow parishioners," the bishop said. "While we welcome this latest development, it is imperative that our parish leaders and all who are returning to public Masses observe the guidelines that public health officials have issued, along with the extensive measures that we have defined for our parishes in order to protect the health and safety of parishioners, as well as priests and liturgical ministers."

LiPuma said at the basilica, some pews already have been blocked off to enforce distancing.

Cuomo's order would allow OLV to host a congregation of about 250. But smaller churches may not be able to comply with diocesan safety guidelines.

Since May 21, public religious services have been allowed but were limited to 10 people. LiPuma said the basilica hosted two 10-person weddings on Saturday.

The governor's announcement won't change anything as far as Biegner is concerned. While churches have been closed, he and other Lutheran ministers have led services broadcast at 10 a.m. Sundays on WBBZ-TV, a practice he said will continue during the pandemic.

"Twenty-five percent is not enough for 75% of mainline churches in Western New York to be able to open," he said. "If we have 160 capacity in our sanctuary, that gives us 40. If our average attendance is 140 to 150, that means we've got to do three to four services to fit all those folks in."

The risks of large gatherings remain present, Biegner said.

"I'm encouraging folks to move slowly, because we want to make sure our older population doesn't jump at the chance to come back, and they get in contact too quickly with someone who has the virus, didn't realize they had the virus, and now they've infected someone who doesn't have the capacity to fight it off," he said. "That's a big concern for us."

Cuomo said he decided to accelerate the reopening of houses of worship because he was encouraged by the state's progress in fighting the pandemic.

The latest daily statewide Covid-19 death toll was 35, including 26 people who died in hospitals and nine in nursing homes. It was the lowest number since the earliest days of the pandemic in March.

"Compared to where we were, this is a big sigh of relief," Cuomo said.

The governor also said New York City will begin phase one reopening Monday, having complied with all of the state's metrics for doing so. The percentage of positive Covid-19 tests, which peaked at 57% in the Big Apple, now is 2%.

Cuomo said all subway cars have been disinfected for the first time.

He also signed an executive order barring price gouging for personal protective equipment by sellers in New York State for the duration of the pandemic. Cuomo admitted his order wouldn't prevent gouging from outside merchants, such as those in China.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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