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Churches say they don't want to be among the last to reopen


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

Gov. Andrew Cuomo also said Monday that churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are not permitted to reopen, though, until phase 4 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, said because many religious services involve large gatherings, they can't 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 said 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 said 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 said 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.”

The Rev. Jason McGuire, with the Christian lobbying group New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, said evangelical church leaders understand that there is a state of emergency in New York because of the virus. But, he said, 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 asked why churches can't open when grocery stores -- and now garden stores -- are allowed to reopen and have several dozen people in the building at a time.

He said 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 said the worry is that some churches could go ahead and reopen anyway without any guidelines in place. 

A reporter asked Cuomo on Sunday 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 said he hopes to announce a decision soon.

Poust said 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 added there will be no choirs and people will be wearing masks, making it difficult to sing.

On Monday, church services in Italy were permitted to resume. Pope Francis reopened St. Peter's Basilica and held a private Mass in a side chapel, and some visitors had their temperatures taken when they entered and were told to sit 5 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.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.