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After state order, Las Cruces diocese lets priests set Mass attendance limits

Santa Fe cathedral Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi/ Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

After the governor of New Mexico allowed churches to re-open at 100% capacity, priests in the Diocese of Las Cruces will be permitted to set their parish capacities for celebration of sacraments. 

“Effective Friday, April 23rd, Bishop Peter Baldacchino has removed the restrictions on Mass attendance and will continue to leave it in the capable hands of the priests in the diocese to celebrate Masses, Funerals, and Weddings at the capacity which they deem prudent while continuing to be aware of their parish realities and the current health precautions set forth by the State and Federal Government,” an April 24 release from the Diocese of Las Cruces stated.

Meanwhile, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe will continue with the indoor Mass attendance limits already in place.

On April 23, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) had announced a new set of public health directives which permitted houses of worship to operate at full capacity. 

Previously, churches in the state were limited to tier-based capacity restrictions that were dependent upon the community spread of the virus. That tier-based system is still in place, but now as a set of recommendations rather than restrictions.

The state lifted its restrictions following recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings that churches could not be subject to greater pandemic restrictions than similar secular establishments, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported. 

While churches may be reopening at full capacity, the diocese reminded Catholics that they are still dispensed from their obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation; precautionary measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing will still be in place at parishes.

“[T]hose that are at risk for COVID-19 are encouraged to stay home and watch the numerous live stream Masses available in the diocese,” the diocese said.

Average attendance at Masses before the pandemic was not “overwhelming,” the diocese said. 

“Pre-pandemic parishes averaged a 50-70% attendance at best,” said the diocese. “Parishes have not seen an issue regarding an overwhelming amount of attendance throughout the capacity changes.” 

Catholics in the diocese, which covers southern New Mexico, are encouraged to contact their individual parishes for updates regarding capacity restrictions.

In the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, Archbishop John Wester has ordered parishes to continue following the state’s recommendations that were previously enforced as restrictions. 

The state established a color-coded system for counties based on the severity of the community spread of COVID-19. Currently, parishes should not allow for full capacity at indoor Masses and celebrations of the sacraments, Archbishop Wester said, but should rather adhere to the state’s “color code capacity” system. 

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Pastors may implement stricter rules at Masses than the state recommends, he added. The elderly and immunocompromised are encouraged to stay home. 

For those “turquoise” counties with the least-severe spread of COVID-19, for instance, the state recommends that indoor religious services be limited to 75% capacity; for “green” and “yellow” counties with a higher spread of the virus, the recommendation is 50% and 33% capacity, respectively; for the “red” counties with the most severe spread of COVID-19, churches are recommended to limit religious services to 25% capacity. 

“It is of paramount importance to remember that the Church values everyone's safety and well-being. Life is sacred and we are taking every precaution to protect our people from the coronavirus,” Archbishop Wester stated. 

Las Cruces was the first diocese in the United States to resume the public celebration of Mass last year after every diocese suspended public Masses during the coronavirus pandemic. Las Cruces announced the return of public Masses on April 15, 2020 - about a month after dioceses began suspending public Masses. 

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At that time, the diocese limited attendance at indoor Masses to five people including the priest, per state directives. Bishop Baldacchino allowed for outdoor Masses where attendees were properly distanced. Those who were at the greatest risk from the coronavirus were instructed to stay at home.

Baldacchino defended his decision to re-open, telling CNA at the time that the Church is “the great essential service of hope, now more than ever.” 

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