For two months, South Florida churches transitioned to live-streamed masses and virtual counseling because of the threat COVID-19 poses to large gatherings.
Many places of worship in Miami-Dade and Broward have opted to keep their services online until further notice. But for Catholics ready to return to in-person mass, the Archdiocese of Miami will reopen parishes today, albeit with restrictions and capacity limitations.
In a letter sent to parishioners last week, Archbishop Thomas Wenski said the church recognizes that it "cannot eliminate the very possible risk of infection" from COVID-19, but he and the diocese's priests "are committed to mitigating the risk as much as possible."
"We reopen because we believe as a Church that there are no substitutes for the reception of the sacraments, and our first priority is to be the sign of hope and instrument of the salvation of the entire human race," Wenski wrote.
While states across the country are lifting stay-at-home orders and reopening certain businesses, public health experts continue to issue warnings about the dangers of large gatherings. Health officials have reminded people that although some gathering places are reopening, the virus has not gone away, and just because a place is opening its doors doesn't necessarily mean it's safe to be there.
In states where places of worship continued to hold in-person services in recent months, some parishioners have exposed others to COVID-19. A Georgia church and a Houston church recently canceled services indefinitely because members and leaders tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after reopening. On May 19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised the alarm about a cluster of COVID-19 cases in rural Arkansas that traced back to a church gathering in early March that led to community transmission.
"This outbreak highlights the potential for widespread transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, both at group gatherings during church events and within the broader community," the CDC said in a report about the cluster of infections.
Father Eduardo J. Alvarez of Gesù Church, South Florida's oldest Catholic Church and a federally registered historic place in downtown Miami, says he expects a lot of people to return to church "but not an avalanche." He says cleanliness will be a top priority, and someone will hold the door open so parishioners aren't touching the door handles. The church will regularly sanitize seats and other surfaces and will offer confession behind Plexiglas and a purple curtain.
"Confessions will be done privately," Alvarez says. "There will be no face-to-face confessions."
The Archdiocese of Miami said in its letter to parishioners that six-foot social distancing requirements will be enforced except for members of the same household, who can sit closer together.
Father Joaquin Rodriguez of St. Martin de Porres Catholic Church in Homestead last week said the church was rearranging chairs and putting down tape markings to provide direction for parishioners. Rodriguez has broadcast mass on Facebook Live, and he's using social media to inform his congregation of the new rules and regulations so when they start coming to mass again, they'll know what to expect.
"Most of the people who come are families," Rodriguez says. "I'm going to ask them not to bring small children. I'll ask the elderly not to come, or to come during the week when there are fewer people."
Churches can schedule more masses depending on how many people return. Rodriguez says his church will offer a way for people to reserve seats so they can control crowds and ensure that the people who want to go can get in.
Rodriguez says his age puts him at higher risk for contracting COVID-19, but he has received clearance from his doctor to continue working and offering mass.
"I'm willing to continue," Rodriguez tells New Times in Spanish. "What else am I going to do, die of loneliness at home? While it's still possible for me to serve, I'm happy to do it."
Parish capacity will be reduced to 25 to 30 percent. Worshipers will be required to wear a face mask at all times during mass, except when receiving communion.
"If somebody doesn't comply, I think the stink eye from others will get compliance," Wenski says.
Parishioners will not be allowed to hold hands during prayer or to exchange the sign of peace. Mass celebrants won't wear masks at the church altar while preaching, but they will while distributing communion.
Although there is potential for hand-to-mouth contact when receiving communion, Wenski says he's not mandating hand-only communion.
"Very rarely does somebody lick my fingers when I give them communion," Wenski quips. "When I give communion in the hand, more often than not, people touch my hand. So I think the risk is balanced between the two options."
Wenski advises that priests can place a stool next to them with hand sanitizer in the event of accidental contact.
"And if something happens with someone receiving the hand, or somebody licks your finger, then you use the hand sanitizer and start over again," Wenski says. "But put it right next to you to not disrupt the flow of the thing."
Wenski acknowledges that older people might be more eager to return to mass because church gatherings provide opportunities to socialize, and seniors are acutely lonely and isolated because of the pandemic. Seniors were also perhaps less likely to watch services online. He says people need to use their own judgment, and while the church continues to advise vulnerable people to stay home and Catholics are dispensed from the obligation to attend mass on Sundays for safety and health reasons, people's choices need to be respected.
"My mother's long dead, but I wouldn't want to be fighting my mother about whether she should go to church," Wenski says. "We give them our best counsel — stay home if you're frail, if you have an underlying condition, if you're older. But they're not children, either, so they have to make their own calculus. If you want to get somebody mad at you, treat them in a way that they think they’re being condescended to. I’m not going to condescend to anyone in this sense."
Wenski says live-streams will continue for those who aren't ready to go back to church in person. People who are homebound also can call their local parish and arrange for a priest to deliver the sacraments.
The archbishop says he hopes Catholic churches won't need to suspend masses again, and he believes that worshipers who want to return to church will follow all the rules so they're not putting others at risk.
"The risk is gonna be there," Wenski says. "I'm sure that people might get sick, but hopefully it won't be because they came to church."
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