Maine diocese frozen out of COVID restrictions discussion

Basilique Saint Pierre et Saint Paul4 1 Basilique Saint-Pierre et Saint-Paul à Lewiston, Maine. | Captain Henry Morgan/CC BY-SA 3.0

The Diocese of Portland, Maine, has expressed frustration at being excluded from conversations with the state governor over safe reopening practices during the coronavirus pandemic after church capacity was again reduced to 50 people. 

"It's really frustrating since all 141 Catholic churches in Maine have followed the protocols set forth by the state and have had zero outbreaks or cases stemming from Masses," Dave Guthro, director of communications for the Diocese of Portland, told CNA on Thursday. 

Following months of tight lockdown restrictions, Churches in the state had briefly been allowed to host 50% of building capacity, up 100 people total, for indoor gatherings, including Mass. On Nov. 1, Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) announced that due to a rising number of cases and hospitalizations, the number of people allowed at indoor gatherings will be lowered again to 50 total. 

Outdoor gatherings are limited to 100 people, with a requirement that there be 1,000 square feet for every five people present.  

Guthro said the state's only Catholic diocese had repeatedly asked the governor to re-examine the capacity restrictions, but has so far received "no response." 

Other New England states, including neighboring New Hampshire, allow for houses of worship to seat a percentage of the building's capacity. Guthro said that the Diocese of Portland has requested that Maine adopt similar policies, to no avail. 

"The governor is well aware of the policies in other states, and yet has declined to personally respond to our inquiries," Guthro told CNA. 

In Maine, retail establishments, including restaurants with indoor dining, are allowed to operate with a capacity based on the size of the building. Guthro told CNA that he "absolutely" thinks churches should be subjected to similar regulations as restaurants and grocery stores. 

"The diocese isn't asking for complete freedom in fully opening our churches throughout the state," said Guthro. " Instead, [we are asking for] just a slight exception to allow for more people in facilities that can safely accommodate them."  

"Watching people get turned away from a 1,500 seat church with 90% of the pews empty has been heartbreaking," he said. 

The Diocese of Portland is home to the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, the second-largest church in New England. Due to the coronavirus protocols, Mass attendance at this building, which has a listed capacity of over 1,500, can now be capped at as little as 45 parishioners. 

Under Maine's coronavirus protocols, priests, deacons, cantors, musicians, and altar servers all count towards the total capacity number, even if they are located many feet away from the pews. 

"There is no substitute for the Eucharist," said Guthro. 

"People go to church to connect with the message of Jesus and to receive the Eucharist which gives us the grace to live our lives in the best way possible. That's being minimized in many respects. Nobody is forced to attend Mass as the dispensation remains in place."

While there have been outbreaks of coronavirus linked to religious services in Maine, none have been traced back to a Catholic church. The other congregations which sparked outbreaks did not adhere to masking, distancing, or capacity protocols. 

While the diocese has held outdoor and "parking lot" Masses in the past, Maine's unpredictable and winter weather make these impractical, said Guthro. And while other events have seen outdoor crowds gather in violation of the state's protocols, Guthro told CNA that the diocese will not seek to spark a confrontation by pointedly violating state rules. 

"We want to be good citizens and look out for the common good," he said. "We are simply asking to be engaged in the process of determining these things because we have a strong case for allowing for 100 in our largest churches." 

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Guthro told CNA that he was unsure as to why Mills had declined to dialogue with the diocese, which is Maine's largest religious denomination. There are about 250,000 Catholics in Maine. 

"Her lack of transparency and communication with the largest denomination in the state is deafening," he said.

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