Joyful and Careful: Churches Allowed to Re-Open, But City Says to Reconsider

When Gov. Charlie Baker announced that Houses of Worship would be able to open up this week in Phase 1 of the state’s re-opening plan, it was a ‘Hallelujah!’ moment, but most churches are not rushing back to the pews just yet.

And given the infection rates of COVID-19 in Chelsea, City leaders are asking any churches considering opening to reconsider that plan.

Bishop Robert Brown of Zion Church Ministries in Everett – which has several Chelsea worshipers – said this week it was great news to hear that the church could re-open, but he said they would likely not be returning to the old way of having church – a sentiment that was shared by Cardinal Sean O’Malley in guidance issued Monday for the entire Archdiocese of Boston with most Catholic Churches hoping for in-person masses on Pentecost (May 31).

Churches had been excluded from many of the discussions about re-opening, to the discontent of a lot of pastors in the area (some from Everett) that submitted a letter to Gov. Baker two weeks ago asking for at least a seat at the table. So, with the exclusion in the early discussions, many were surprised that churches were given the leeway to open last Monday along with construction and manufacturing.

Gov. Baker’s order for churches allows them to have 40 percent of their legal occupancy for worship services, and there have to be masks and proper spacing between them. There are no fellowship dinners allowed and none of the other social engagements that are part of normal church times.

Brown said they have a lot of precautions to work on, and he has a team of ushers and personnel that will help clean the building and get it ready for worshippers in the COVID-19 era. With all that on hand, he said this coming Sunday – Memorial Day weekend – is just too soon.

Instead, they are aiming for May 31.

“The restrictions do work for us,” he said. “We have a lot of logistics to work out. I want to make sure people feel safe when they come in and know the proper restrictions, like in the fellowship. There won’t be hugging or lingering after services. We’ll come in for service and spend our time and then depart. It will be different. Personally, as a pastor, I’m happy. I did get tired of preaching to my congregation on YouTube and Facebook. It will be nice to look out and see some real people in front of me…This is good news, but I don’t want to become so overjoyed that we forget what we need to do to stay safe and prevent this from flaring up again.”

Father Edgar Duarte of St. Luke’s/San Lucas Episcopal Church said given Chelsea’s infection rates over the last 12 weeks, he isn’t planning a return to in-person services any time soon.

“A week or so ago our bishops had instructed all our churches to move the opening date to July 1,” he said. “St. Luke’s will use that date as the target to start taking the steps outlined by the document…We are working closely in conversation with the City of Chelsea management to agree on final dates to start the re-opening steps.  The directives from the Diocese are in general to many different churches with different degrees of COVID-19 impact. Since Chelsea has been the hardest-hit community in the state, we need to make sure we are moving according to the advice of the local authorities to ensure that it is safe in Chelsea to open houses of worship.”

City Manager Tom Ambrosino said the City is very concerned that churches might try to open this weekend, and he is asking any churches to reconsider that plan.

“That is one part of the governor’s Phase 1 plan that we had concerns about – the re-opening of Houses of Worship,” he said. “They are interior locations and I know the governor had proposed guidelines of being six feet away and 40 percent of occupancy, but I am very, very hesitant about large gatherings inside. We are asking them if they will voluntarily think about not opening so quickly or if they open, to have services outside only. We told them we thought it might be better to adhere to an occupancy that is 25 percent and not 40 percent.”

He said there has been so much COVID-19 in Chelsea that there should be different expectations for opening interior gatherings.

“I they have 10 people in the church, one of them will likely be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 and won’t know they are infected,” he said. “I think we have to assume one in 10 people in this community is an asymptomatic carrier and that’s probably conservative. I think that should give everyone a little pause.”

The Archdiocese of Boston leaving decisions up to individual Parishes, and has been working with the state for several weeks – along with an internal working committee – to come up with the best practices for safe worship.

“The announcement by the Governor this morning that the Commonwealth was beginning the process of re-opening is welcome news,” read a statement from Cardinal O’Malley on Monday. “The Archdiocese has consistently stated we will work collaboratively with local and state officials during this crisis and we will continue to comply with their guidance and mandates devised to restart community activity while continuing to fight the virus and keep people safe.

“Shortly after the Governor’s announcement we communicated a series of steps to our parishes that they must follow to adhere to both the state and Church requirements to re-open,” read the statement.

While Masses could begin as early as Saturday, May 23, many church leaders in the Archdiocese are shooting to have some sort of re-opening – perhaps using a ticket system if need be – on May 31.

The working committee was made up of priests, deacons, lay leaders and it has come up with an extensive document and checklist for Parishes to consult before scheduling their first services.

“If a parish within the Archdiocese of Boston, after careful and deliberate preparation, considers that they are able to meet all of the State, Municipal, and Archdiocesan guidelines, they may request permission from their Regional Bishop or Episcopal Vicar to begin Masses as early as Saturday evening, May 23,” read a statement from the Cardinal. “Many, or even most, parishes may well need more time to prepare, and may choose Sunday, May 31 (the Feast of Pentecost), as the date for their reopening. Parishes should not resume Masses before they are ready, and the decision to delay the resumption of Masses until May 31 may very well be the best decision for a parish. No matter what the start date, no parish should have Mass unless they can do it safely, and in compliance with the guidelines.”

Even with the re-opening of Catholic churches, there are many guidelines and it is suggested that the elderly and medically vulnerable populations stay home, where online and cable broadcasts will continue as they have since March.

Being ready is going to be a major task at most Catholic churches.

The document from the Archdiocese’s Office of Risk Management calls for a number of measures to be put in place, including a Corps of Volunteers to be formed and trained so as to direct the flow of people safely into and out of church, and to clean up afterward.

Other suggestions include:

•Church deeply cleaned, according to methods outlined.

•Hymnals and missalettes removed.

•Volunteers in place to assist with traffic flow.

•Signs clearly posted, letting people know:

*That they must wear masks.

*A distance of six feet must be maintained.

*No congregational singing.

•Socially distant seating marked out.

•Hand sanitizer available.

•Holy water fonts empty.

•Markers on the floor indicating the direction of traffic flow and spacing off six feet in places where people might be in lines.

•Some method in place to restrict the number of people who enter the church to below 40% capacity, and no more than the number of socially distanced seats available.

•Plan and volunteers and materials in place to clean church between Masses.

•Permission of Regional Bishop or Episcopal Vicar if starting Mass before May 31.

Ambrosino said they won’t be policing churches or inspecting them with City inspectors, but he said if there are complaints from worshippers, they will pursue it.

“We’re not going to show up at a church and issue fines, but I have no doubt if there are violations, we’ll hear about it from congregants worried about their safety,” he said. “We will follow up vigorously with those complaints.”

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