By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo today said houses of worship could immediately provide public services at 25% occupancy. 

“Be smart,” he said at a midday briefing June 6. Noting social distancing must be observed, he added, “We leave it to our faith-based partners to come up with a smart strategy.”

The Diocese of Syracuse released protocols for sanitizing, social distancing, and crowd size on May 22 as Bishop Douglas J. Lucia approved resumption of limited public Masses in the Syracuse Diocese beginning May 30 and 31. The bishop had previously suspended public Masses March 16 as the coronavirus pandemic accelerated. About 40 parishes in the diocese last weekend offered public services in parking lots or indoors with a limit of 10 people. 

In announcing the 25% policy, Cuomo cited declining hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19. The policy applies to regions in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, which Central New York and the Southern Tier entered May 29.  

As businesses opened and services resumed in New York regions, some called for churches to reopen. Houses of worship originally were included in the state’s last of four reopening phases. Officials said large gatherings could spread the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Early cases in New York emerged after a person with the virus attended religious services. Some Catholic Churches have reopened in the U.S., only to close after clergy or congregants tested positive for the disease.  

Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon said this week houses of worship should reopen to offer solace and support during demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd. He has said for several weeks he thinks houses of worship can reopen and follow social distancing guidelines.  

“I’m trying to get these buildings open,” McMahon said at a June 5 briefing. “My personal view is churches are essential … We can’t make so much progress on the economy and not move forward.”

The state department of health reported that 24,212 people had died of COVID-19 as of June 5. The state reported 35 deaths June 5, the lowest rate recorded since mid-March. The highest number of deaths was 800 in one day.  “This is a big sigh of relief,” Cuomo said.

It’s unclear if Cuomo consulted with the Interfaith Advisory Council before his announcement. The council includes Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the Archdiocese of New York, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany, and three Syracuse pastors: Daren Jaime, pastor of People’s AME Zion Church; Phil Turner, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church; and Max Jones, senior pastor of Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

The Archdiocese of New York May 21 announced a five-phase reopening plan called “Faith Forward.” The Diocese of Brooklyn announced a similar plan. 

Bishop Lucia has said he’s eager to resume public Masses, but consistently has stressed safety for clergy and worshipers. Some parishes will not be able to resume Masses immediately as they plan services that meet safety protocols, he said in a May 27 letter

In an email confirming the resumption of public Masses at 25% capacity, the diocese reminded pastors to complete and submit to the bishop’s office a detailed, 16-point planning form based on the diocese’s protocols.

Directives for indoor Masses include: 

• A system of registration is to be devised to ensure individuals are not turned away at the door, to avoid any traffic issues, and as a safety measure to assist in reporting any possible exposure to COVID-19.
• Face masks must be worn by attendees over the age of 2.
• Holy water fonts will be empty and hymnals removed.
• Pews will be marked for seating; households may sit together.
• Choirs are suspended but music may be provided by a musician and cantor.
• The sign of peace is omitted.
• To receive Communion, the faithful will sanitize their hands and come forward at the direction of the usher. Communicants are strongly recommended to receive Holy Communion in the hand. The Precious Blood will not be distributed.

Watch a video about returning to public Masses below, from Father Christopher Seibt, director of the Office of Liturgy, and Syracuse Catholic Television.

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