The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse is in an Orange Zone. (Sun photo | Chuck Wainwright)
Editor’s note: In a 5-4 opinion, the Supreme Court late Nov. 25 sided with the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y., and two synagogues in ruling that some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pandemic restrictions on houses of worship violated the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom. The Diocese of Syracuse Nov. 26 said that its directive to limit congregation sizes at parishes in Orange Zones, issued Nov. 23 in alignment with the state’s mandate, remains in effect.
By Renée K. Gadoua | Contributing writer
Some Onondaga County parishes will reduce capacity in response to new state restrictions aimed at stemming the recent surge of coronavirus infections.
The changes follow the state’s creation of a three-tier system — yellow, orange, and red zones — to target geographic areas where positive tests and COVID-19 hospitalizations were increasing.
The statewide hospitalization rate has increased 128% over the last three weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at a Nov. 24 briefing.
New York’s Micro-Cluster Strategy identifies clusters and categorizes the areas around them into one or more color-coded zones with corresponding levels of restrictions based on the transmission of COVID-19 cases. In Yellow Zones, houses of worship are restricted to 50% of capacity, according to state guidelines. That drops to the lesser of 33% or 25 people in Orange Zones, and the lesser of 25% or 10 people in Red Zones.
Schools in Yellow Zones remain open and require 20% weekly testing of in-person students and faculty. Schools in Orange and Red Zones must close and provide remote instruction only; they may reopen after four days of closure and testing of all in-person students and staff.
Syracuse, Lysander, Clay, and Salina in Onondaga County were designated Yellow Zones Nov. 9. Parts of Manlius and Cicero were designated Yellow Zones Nov. 23, and parts of the city of Syracuse, Solvay, Lyncourt, Town of Salina, and Jamesville were designated Orange Zones on Nov. 23.
Parts of Binghamton, Johnson City, Endwell, and Endicott in Broome County were designated a Yellow Zone in early October. The county’s Yellow Zone designation was lifted Nov. 18 after a decline in the area’s COVID-19 positivity rate.
Oneida County has also seen a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks. Although Oneida County Executive Anthony Picente has called the increase “very alarming,” as of Nov. 25 the state had not designated the county a Yellow Zone.
“Barring a modification in the [state’s] rules, I feel that we must abide by these restrictions for the greater public good,” Bishop Douglas J. Lucia wrote in a Nov. 23 letter to the diocesan community.
The restrictions are “not a direct attack on religion or religious gatherings,” the bishop wrote. “Rather, it is a response to the spread of a deadly disease which in part has occurred because some individuals within our communities have chosen to disregard important safety protocols, i.e., not wearing masks, not social distancing, and having large gatherings.”
Parishes in the Orange Zone “must remain open” and “Sunday and weekday Masses are still to be offered, even if for a reduced congregation,” the bishop wrote. “Also, the planned hours for the Sacrament of Penance (Confession) should be maintained.”
On Nov. 24, the bishop authorized Orange Zone parishes to add a 3 p.m. Vigil Mass to provide an additional opportunity for parishioners to attend Mass.
The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is in Syracuse’s Orange Zone, limiting attendance to 25. Bishop Lucia has moved the Blessing of the Immaculata Awards to 4 p.m. Nov. 29 at St. Margaret’s Church in Mattydale.
Catholics in the diocese remain dispensed from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass; Bishop Lucia issued the dispensation March 13.
All 22 diocesan schools opened in September offering full-day, in-person instruction five days a week. Holy Cross School in DeWitt and Blessed Sacrament School, Cathedral Academy at Pompei, and Most Holy Rosary School, all in Syracuse, are now within the Orange Zone. Bishop Grimes Jr./Sr. High School in East Syracuse, Bishop Ludden Jr./Sr. High School in Syracuse, Holy Family School in Fairmount, Immaculate Conception School in Fayetteville, St. Margaret’s School in Mattydale, and St. Rose of Lima School in North Syracuse are in the Yellow Zone.
Superintendent of Catholic Schools William Crist said Nov. 25 that leaders of affected schools were working with county officials to begin testing students and staff on Monday. He noted that of 327 students and staff members in Yellow Zone schools tested in early November, only one individual tested positive.
More than 22,300 people in the diocese’s seven counties had tested positive by Nov. 25, according to the New York state website. More than 500 people had died of COVID-19 by that date.
New state restrictions also apply to restaurants, businesses, and residential and nonresidential gatherings.
The Episcopal Diocese of Central New York has suspended all indoor in-person gatherings, including Christmas services, from Nov. 29 through at least Jan. 1.
Thanksgiving — and likely Christmas — require sacrifice, Cuomo said. “It’s not a normal Thanksgiving; it’s a special Thanksgiving,” he said. “This Thanksgiving is more profound and deeper than most Thanksgivings. This one is more symbolic because this year we’re giving thanks for all the people who sacrificed for us through the year.”
Editor Katherine Long contributed to this report.