“An order that sweeps so broadly that it prohibits, for example, a gathering of 11 people in a Cathedral with a seating capacity of several thousand defies reason,” they said.
However, the Catholic bishops emphasized the need for parishes to follow strict requirements established by the Church. They must limit attendance to no more than one-third of church capacity, and must follow sanitation protocols. Catholics are still dispensed from their Sunday obligation to attend Mass.
Flanigan said safety precautions are vital for any such effort.
“When bishops do the careful work, as is done in many parts of the country like Minnesota, to recommend that their churches open following the guidance of the CDC, and the state has opened up similar gatherings in similar-type gatherings, then I’d certainly support the bishops in doing this,” he told CNA. “I support them for recommending an opening up, and the most important thing is doing what they are doing: following the CDC guidance.”
Churches have been the focus of concern during the epidemic because of the close proximity of church attendees, socialization before, during and after services, and practices like singing. Some churches have older congregations and so are believed to be more vulnerable to extreme consequences from coronavirus infection.
A May 22 article in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report considered a novel coronavirus outbreak at a rural Arkansas church from March 6-11. The report said that large gatherings pose a risk for Covid-19 transmission. Among the 92 attendees at the Arkansas church, 38% developed a laboratory-confirmed case of infection, and three died. Cases in the community linked to the church numbered 26, including one death.
The article said the case has the implication that faith-based groups “should work with local health officials” to determine how to implement U.S. guidelines for modifying their activities “to prevent transmission of the virus to their members and their communities.”
While not commenting on any specific incident, Flanigan said these incidents of contagion at churches “occurred prior to the use of those guidelines.”
“We know that one very significant outbreak occurred where there was a lot of contact with different church members, very close contact, a lot of physical contact, touching, different materials, passing things around,” he said. “Of course this was prior to our awareness of the spread of coronavirus and prior to an understanding of how important it is that we follow the CDC guidance.”
“The CDC has described outbreaks that have occurred in the setting of singing,” he said. “We know that different activities can cause more aerosolization of droplets, and that has let to very specific recommendations. Unfortunately, choirs are recommended not to practice and not to sing, and not to perform in all areas. Whether it is in Mass or other choral groups or performances, for example.”
He said outbreaks have been related to public gatherings, carnivals, celebrations, conferences, and public worship.
“I think it’s a mistake to say ‘is a conference safer or less safe than a house of worship?’ That’s the wrong question,” Flanigan told CNA. “The CDC gives us that guidance to decrease the rate of transmission. It’s just as important that guidance be followed at a house of worship, as at a conference, as at any other gathering.”
“If somebody makes an arbitrary judgment that a church is not going to follow that guidance, without any evidence, that is biased and there is no evidence for that,” he said.
Flanigan questioned the categories of some governors who classified religious gatherings as “non-essential,” compared to more “essential” activities like grocery stores.
“Being able to come together and pray together, being able to receive the sacraments, to encounter the Lord, right there in the sacraments, is so important,” Flanigan commented.
Mental health is just as important as physical health, just as important as spiritual health,” he said. “We are a whole self, which has a mind, a body, a heart a soul. To be able to pray together, to be able to support each other, to be able to worship together, to be able to receive the Lord in communion, is so important for us to be healthy and to thrive.”
“That is why our churches are essential,” he told CNA. “That is why this whole argument of essential vs. non-essential was a mistake, and not supported by anyone. Some governors just made assumptions that church is non-essential, and that is a grave error. It is an error from the public health point of view, and it is an error from the public health point of view.”
One hallmark of the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, is isolation.
“We are alone in the hospital, we are alone in our nursing homes, we are alone with our fear at two o’clock in the morning. The way we normally get our support is suddenly taken away from us,” he reflected. “That alone-ness is very very difficult. The evil one can attack us, gravely, during these times.”
Coronavirus restrictions have polarized some supporters and critics, and appears to have resulted in violence at times. Across the country, Several store clerks who have asked patrons to wear masks have been assaulted or killed. A Holly Springs, Mississippi Pentecostal church that filed a legal challenge against the city’s stay-at-home order was burned down in an apparent arson, with a note chalked nearby denouncing church members as hypocritical.
Even as some states open up, outbreaks continue. Five of seven Redemptorists at a Houston, Texas community went back into quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus, and after another priest died after possible exposure.