ALBANY (TNS) — As parts of New York begin reopening businesses, one important part of many people’s lives remains shuttered: houses of worship.
Most of upstate New York has entered phase one of a four-phase plan of slowly reopening stores, companies and recreational spots amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are technically part of phase four, meaning they would be more than a month away from being able to resume in-building services that have shifted to online after New York’s stay-at-home order took effect March 22.
Religious gatherings of no more than 10 people were allowed in New York starting Thursday so long as they maintain social distancing and participants wear masks.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a slight loosening of the restrictions on worship Wednesday, saying he hopes the services can help people better cope with the troubling times. The state will also allow drive-in and parking lot services.
But Cuomo said houses of worship are part of the large gathering category that the state is cautious to reopen sooner, even as it is allowing beaches and golf courses to open with proper social distancing.
“Anywhere where you have a concentration of density, the gatherings, that’s the issue,” Cuomo said earlier this week in Buffalo, which entered Phase 1 on Tuesday.
PREVIOUS OUTBREAK SHOWS RAPID SPREAD
Cuomo pointed to the state’s initial outbreak as an example: A New Rochelle congregant at a local synagogue attended a series of events in late February and later became gravely ill with coronavirus.
The virus spread through the congregation, making it one of the first hotspots for COVID-19 in the nation.
It led to a quarantine of 1,000 people who may have came in contact with the initial patient, Lawrence Garbuz, and a containment zone in the neighborhood that shut down schools and businesses.
“I’m thankful that I’m alive,” Garbuz, the 50-year-old New York City lawyer said on the Today show May 11. “It’s been quite a journey.”
Cuomo and budget director Robert Mujica, who is helping to manage the reopening, said they are looking at ways houses of worship can reopen but with smaller gatherings and proper social distancing prior to phase four.
“The question is whether you could do something less than (capacity), but that’s still an open question,” Mujica said Monday.
Cuomo said the situation in New Rochelle showed how rapidly the virus could spread through a congregation.
“You have a couple hundred people and you have one person who is infected, and you have a problem,” he said.
CHURCHES ARE PREPARING
The eight dioceses in New York have been planning what a reopening will look like, said Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the Catholic Conference of New York.
He said the churches are expected to limit the amount of people who can attend a Mass in person, probably closing off some pews.
He said there would be no passed collection basket or missals, worship aids or bulletins handed out and no shaking hands during the Sign of Peace.
Other steps would be to not share the cup of consecrated wine at communion, and priests would “need to be diligent about sanitizing their hands before distributing communion in the hand, and re-sanitizing if they make any contact with a communicant while distributing communion.”
Choirs and singing may also be limited or eliminated, and all attendees would need to wear a mask and use provided hand sanitizer. Masses may also be spaced out more to allow cleaning teams to disinfect in the time between.
The ability to watch services online would continue.
“No one who feels unsafe or at risk should feel like they need to come to church,” Poust said.
“People may wish to consider attending a weekday Mass, which typically may only have a very small number of people in the best of times, instead of Sunday Mass for the time being.”
In New Jersey, churches opened Sunday for private prayer and masks were required, and other states have limited attendance.
“Everyone has to do their part, and if they do, we are convinced we can return to public Mass soon across the state in a safe way,” Poust said.
NYC LOOKS FOR WAYS TO REOPEN
New York City and its suburbs have yet to enter phase one because most of the COVID-19 cases and deaths have been there.
For opening large gatherings, “nobody can tell you when you’ll be ready for that,” Cuomo said.
“But the answer is everybody will know, because if you follow the numbers and you follow the math, you will watch that infection rate and you will see the trajectory of progress.”
New York is also considering ways to have small ceremonies for Memorial Day celebrations, Cuomo said.
“If we can circumscribe a ceremony, your number was 14, 15 people, social distance with safeguards, can we find a way to do a ceremony, religious ceremony or a ceremony that honors Memorial Day? And I think we can,” Cuomo said Sunday in response to a reporter’s question.
“That’s what we’re talking through.”