LA Diocese, Others Await Governor's Guidance for Reopening Churches

The CDC guidance includes standard recommendations such as frequent hand-washing, encouraging face coverings for staff and congregants, and promotion of social distancing through physical set-up and attendance.

As churches statewide look forward to guidance Monday from Gov. Gavin Newsom on how they can reopen, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez is cautioning that reopening houses of worship will require planning and caution.

The coronavirus remains "a very dangerous illness," Gomez said in a video message to the faithful posted this weekend.

"The situation is not over yet," he said. "Even this week the number of cases of people infected in Los Angeles County -- and sadly the people who have died this week -- the number are still very high."

"It's been very challenging for me, personally, and for my brother bishops and priests not to be able to have the celebration of Mass in a normal way," Gomez said.

The archbishop has been celebrating Mass in an empty Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels since shutdown orders went into effect in March. "It is a beautiful cathedral," he said, "and what makes the cathedral even more beautiful is the presence of so many faithful that want to come and celebrate with us.''

Gomez said he looks forward to the church reopening soon.

"Let us keep praying, let us keep working together," the archbishop said. "I am really hopeful that things are going to change really soon. I need your support and your prayers because, obviously, we need to come to that moment where we can safely open our churches to continue the celebration of the Sacraments that are so essential for us. If we work together, we pray together, and we give priority to protecting one another in this challenging situation, we can see that the churches are going to be open very soon."

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Newsom has said the state will issue guidelines by Monday for the reopening of churches and other houses of worship across the state, despite President Donald Trump's insistence that they be allowed to reopen immediately for in-person services.

Newsom said the state has been "working with the faith community to advance the efforts to begin to put out guidelines, processes and procedures to (protect the) health and safety of congregants and parishioners."

"We've been working throughout the interfaith community ... all up and down the state, working on the differentiation, the large mega-churches versus more neighborhood-style churches and different styles of pews and sanitation protocols, synagogues versus working with other faiths. We've been working on those sectoral guidelines and we are just days away, at the latest on Monday, we will put out those guidelines."

Newsom's comments last week came hours after Trump held a news conference deeming houses of worship to be "essential," and saying he would override governors of states that refuse to allow them to open immediately.

"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential," Trump said. "It's not right. So I'm correcting this injustice and calling houses of worship essential."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released "interim guidance" Friday for houses of worship, while continuing to warn that "gatherings present a risk for increasing the spread of COVID-19 during this public health emergency."

The CDC guidance includes standard recommendations such as frequent hand-washing, encouraging face coverings for staff and congregants, frequent cleaning of surfaces and promotion of social distancing through physical set-up and limited attendance.

The guidelines also recommend changes in the way houses of worship collect financial donations, limited physical contact such as shaking hands or hugging, and limiting the sharing of objects such as prayer books and cups.

More than 1,200 pastors and clergy from across California sent the governor a letter earlier this week saying they plan to resume in-person services May 31, regardless of state restrictions.

Some churches and faith leaders have also sued the state, seeking to compel the reopening of houses of worship, and the U.S. Department of Justice recently sent a letter to the state warning that restrictions on such facilities could be a violation of federal law.

Pastor Joe Pedick of Calvary Chapel of the Harbour in Huntington Beach said he was among the group of pastors and clergy vowing to open their churches May 31.

Pedick said he was "very thankful" the governor was working to reopen churches soon.

"But we're opening up on May 31," Pedick said. "That's our plan. We believe we have First Amendment, the constitutional right to freedom of religion."

Pedick praised the president for pushing to reopen churches.

The pastor said his church planned to implement social-distancing standards during the service.

"We'll have sanitizer stations all over the church, we'll be handing out masks," he said. "We'll be safer than your local grocery store because there won't be any products anyone is handling."

Pedick said the church will do away with bulletins that are normally handed out at services, and, "We're encouraging everyone to not hug as usual. We're a very loving church, but we'll restrain from that for now."

Pedick said Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Michelle Steel was scheduled to attend the service along with a Huntington Beach city councilman.

The Diocese of Orange announced Friday public Masses can begin in the county the weekend of June 13 and 14, "in a phased-in approach with measures in place to safeguard public health."

Bishop Kevin W. Vann also extended a dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass and Holy Days of Obligation "until such time as it is deemed safe to have large gatherings at Mass."

Phase one of the diocese's plan is allowing healthy Catholics back to a limited Mass with strict social distancing guidelines. Phase two would allow for larger groups and phase three would allow for choirs to return to church and social gatherings to resume.

"The pandemic is far from over so we will begin with small steps," Vann said.

"Realizing that reinfection is a concern, as we saw occurred in Texas and elsewhere, I am asking our pastors to prepare their churches to ensure that these guidelines are followed without exception."

Those over 65 years old or with an underlying medical condition were encouraged to not return to Mass, as well as anyone showing symptoms of any illness.

Churches will be thoroughly sanitized and cleaned before and after each service. Holy water fonts will be empty and hymnals removed. Hand sanitizer will be available at all churches and physical contact between worshipers will be discouraged during Mass, the diocese said.

Only 1/3 of the church space will be available per Mass, the diocese said.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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