Walz to let churches open at 25 percent occupancy

 startribune.com  05/23/2020 18:59:00   Christopher Snowbeck

Places of worship in Minnesota may open at 25% occupancy starting Wednesday if they follow social distancing and other public health guidelines to keep congregants safe.

The announcement Saturday from Gov. Tim Walz apparently resolves a conflict with some churches including the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which had planned to reopen Tuesday at one-third capacity despite state limits on group gatherings.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda said in a statement Saturday that an executive order on the subject from Walz is “an important breakthrough ... that allows faith communities to accommodate up to 250 people for worship services, provided precautions are taken to protect public health. We welcome that development.”

According to the executive order, places of worship, funeral homes and other venues that offer gathering space for weddings, funerals and planned services may do so with over 10 people attending, provided that they adhere to certain requirements. The venues must ensure a minimum of 6 feet of physical distance between households.

In indoor settings, occupancy must not exceed 25% of normal capacity as determined by the fire marshal, with a maximum of 250 people in a single self-contained space. In outdoor settings, gatherings must not exceed 250 individuals, according to the order.

In a statement issued Saturday, Walz said the decision has been difficult because large gatherings raise the risk of spreading COVID-19. He added: “We also know worship is an essential part of many Minnesotans’ lives, including mine.”

Hebda said that although the archdiocese previously announced that Mass could begin May 26, the bishops decided to move that back one day — to May 27 — to give each parish the chance to reassess its plans. It also lets parishes look at new guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health.

“In particular, at this time when the number of cases in Minnesota has not yet peaked, we are asking parishes to limit attendance at Mass to 25% of church capacity or 250 people, whichever is lower,” Hebda said in a statement. “Even with these revisions, we hope that parishes already planning to come together on Sunday, May 31, for the celebration of Pentecost and the conclusion of the Easter season, should still be able to do that.”

Walz was expected to discuss federal guidance for how churches can reopen with the COVID-19 pandemic at a 2 p.m. Saturday news conference.

Interim guidance the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides “general considerations” for communities of faith on “how best to practice their beliefs while keeping their staff and congregations safe.”

“The information offered is nonbinding public health guidance for consideration only; it is not meant to regulate or prescribe standards for interactions of faith communities in houses of worship,” the CDC says in the document.

It encourages faith communities to communicate with local and state authorities about the degree of coronavirus risk in the area. It also recommends special protections for staff and congregants at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, including older adults and those with certain medical conditions.

On Tuesday, the CDC published a report showing how easily coronavirus spread among people who attended events at a church in Arkansas over a six-day period this month. Testing found 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases among 92 people who attended the events; three patients died.

“Despite canceling in-person church activities and closing the church as soon as it was recognized that several members of the congregation had become ill, widespread transmission within[the] church ... and within the surrounding community occurred,” says the CDC report.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

Twitter: @chrissnowbeck

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