New York Churches Say They Don't Want To Be Among The Last To Reopen

May 18, 2020

Parts of New York State are gradually reopening, with Western New York authorized Monday to join five other regions of the state and begin Phase One of a four-phase process. The Capital Region will be allowed to begin reopening on Tuesday. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo said Monday that churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are not permitted to reopen, though, until Phase Four is reached. Religious leaders are asking the state for more guidance, and whether, if they practiced safe social distancing, they could open sooner than that.

Cuomo, at his daily coronavirus briefing, says because many religious services involve large gatherings, they cannot safely restart until Phase Four. Speaking in Buffalo, he compared a large worship event to the crowded sightseeing boats now banned in Niagara Falls.

“It’s the same thing, it’s all jammed boats, jammed temples, jammed churches,” Cuomo said. “The gathering is the issue.”

He says the first COVID-19 hot spot in New York stemmed from a religious gathering in New Rochelle.

But it could be several weeks, or even months, in some parts of the state hit hardest by the virus, before Phase Four of a reopening is reached.

Dennis Poust is with the Catholic Conference, which represents New York’s Catholic cardinals and bishops. Speaking via Skype, he says houses of worship were never formally closed by the state, and Catholic churches are still open for private prayer or to light a candle. But he says Catholic leaders decided to curtail public services as the COVID-19 pandemic raged in New York. Now, he says they are thinking of ways to reopen with safe social distancing and other precautions, and believes they can do that sooner than in Phase Four.

“The governor seemed to be saying is to reopen like normal would be a Phase Four situation, but we have no intention of reopening like normal,” said Poust. “We are going to have to put strict limits in terms of capacity in every church, and all sorts of restrictions.”

Reverend Jason McGuire, with the Christian lobbying group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, says evangelical church leaders understand that there is a state of emergency in New York because of the virus, but says state officials should work with religious leaders to find a balance that allows church services to resume.

“And that’s what this state government has failed to do,” McGuire said. “It’s good at restricting religious liberty, but hasn’t done so in the least restrictive means possible.”    

McGuire’s group is sending a letter to Cuomo this week, saying the weeks-long shutdown has taken a toll on the evangelical communities. He asks, why if grocery stores, and now garden stores are allowed to reopen, and have several dozen people in the building at time, why can’t churches do the same? He says even the governor’s daily press briefings often contain as many people, at safe social distances, as a small rural church might see on a typical Sunday.  

“I’m watching these daily press conferences that are coming out of Albany and all across the state, and there’s 15 or so different members of the press there, staff people,” McGuire said. “There is a First Amendment right to free press, but the right to worship in our buildings is now being denied to us.”

McGuire has asked if churches could rent out drive-in movie theaters, which have been permitted to reopen, to hold services on Sunday mornings, but has received no answer. He says the worry is that some churches could go ahead and reopen anyway without any guidelines in place.

Cuomo on Sunday was asked by a reporter about permission to celebrate the orthodox Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which begins on May 28, if it could be done in very small groups. He said he and his team are considering whether to permit smaller religious gatherings and ceremonies for the upcoming Memorial Day holiday on May 25.

“I think we can,” Cuomo said. “That’s what we are talking through.”

He says he hopes to announce a decision soon.

Poust says when parishioners do return for Mass, it will be a different experience. Communion can be given, but only in the receiver’s hand, not by mouth, and the priest will have to sanitize their hands between each person. A communal cup offered as part of the sacrament would have to be curtailed for now. And there won’t be any singing.

“We don’t want to spread germs, and you spread germs by singing,” said Poust, who said there will be no choirs and, anyway, people will be wearing masks, making it difficult to sing. 

On Monday, church services in Italy were permitted to resume. Pope Francis reopened Saint Peter’s Basilica and held a private mass in side chapel, and some visitors had their temperatures taken when they entered and were told to sit five feet apart and wear masks.  

Houses of worship can also open in the neighboring state of Massachusetts as of Monday, if they observe strict social distancing guidelines. Outdoor services are encouraged.

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