Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Wednesday that churches and other houses of worship will be allowed to conduct services - with serious social distancing protocols -  as early as Thursday.

"I understand their desire to get back to religious ceremonies as soon as possible," Cuomo said during his Wednesday coronavirus press conference. 

Starting Thursday, religious gatherings of 10 or fewer can resume as long as social-distancing protocols are followed and masks are worn. Outdoor services can be held in parking lots and drive-in movie theaters also under social-distancing guidelines. Even with the welcoming news, no diocese in New York State, including the Diocese of Albany, is set to move that quickly. 

“We are very glad to hear that Gov. Cuomo supports the resumption of church gatherings of 10 or fewer people, as well as parking lot gatherings. That being said, we are proceeding with caution to ensure the safety of our parishioners,” said Mary DeTurris Poust, director of communications for the Diocese of Albany. “We currently have guidelines for parishes in our 14-county diocese and are in the process of preparing a second document that will address liturgical and sacramental issues in light of social distancing and safety precautions. 

“Although we are not yet ready to open parishes for Sunday worship, we do believe this easing of restrictions will allow for baptisms, funerals and weddings to proceed, all while respecting social distancing requirements. Our parishes will be submitting plans as to how they will be able to meet the diocesan guidelines we have issued for a safe reopening. Once we are confident we are in a position to do so in a responsible and safe manner, we will announce a reopening date.”

Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger and Cardinal Timothy Dolan will be part of an Interfaith Advisory Council - that Cuomo also announced on Wednesday - that will look into how and when to restart public worship.

“Bishop Scharfenberger is pleased to be one of the religious leaders invited by the governor to serve on the Interfaith Advisory Council,” DeTurris Poust said. “He looks forward to working with the governor and faith leaders of the state to develop best practices for houses of worship going forward.”

With the Capital Region slowly reopening Wednesday, there had been little guidance from the state as to when churches and other houses of worship could resume limited public Masses. As of last week, the guidance had churches in Phase 4 or the four-phase reopening plan which could have delayed the resumption of any public Masses for weeks. Wednesday’s news certainly comes as a bit of relief to area Catholics.

“Today brings good news for people of faith, and we’re grateful that Gov. Cuomo has acknowledged the importance of religious faith and practice, especially now in this time of pandemic. Cardinal Dolan and the Bishops of New York State look forward to working with civic and health officials and other interfaith leaders to responsibly plan for resuming public religious services,” said Dennis Poust, director of communications for the New York State Catholic Conference .“Our Catholic people are hungry for the Mass and are anxious to gather together again in prayer and worship. At the same time, we have a moral obligation to protect our congregations and our clergy from COVID-19, so we will proceed slowly and responsibly and collaboratively.”

But what can you expect when public Masses start again? By looking at examples across U.S. dioceses and churches in Europe they show: Extreme caution will be practiced, there will be a limited number of congregants per Mass, communion only in hand, everyone will be wearing a mask, Sunday dispensation will still be in effect, livestreams will continue and going to weekday Masses will be encouraged. One thing is clear, when public Masses do resume, they will be nothing like before … at least at the start.

“The bishops are committed to working closely with state and local public health officials to ensure the safety of parishioners,” Poust said. “For the foreseeable future, once churches do reopen, Catholics around the state will surely need to get used to a somewhat different experience, most notably smaller, socially distant congregations; wearing of masks; more time between Masses to allow for disinfecting; adjustments to the liturgy, such as the absence of the physical sign of peace and probably the absence of the Precious Blood for all but the celebrant; and other changes. Elderly people or people with underlying conditions will be cautioned to stay home, and the dispensation from the Sunday obligation is likely to remain in place for quite a while.

“We may see some bishops encourage the faithful to consider going to a daily Mass during the week rather than Sunday Mass to allow more people to get to Mass on a regular basis. The bottom line is flexibility will be key — for bishops, for pastors and parish staff, and for the Catholic faithful. Containing the spread of the virus is of paramount importance right now, but we are confident that we are getting to a point very quickly where we can safely resume public Mass, especially in the upstate dioceses at first, but statewide in the not-too-distant future.”

Poust’s comments mirror what other countries and U.S. dioceses are doing as they take baby steps in reopening. Let’s take a look:

ITALY: Churches had always been "open," but the public was allowed to be present for liturgical celebrations started May 18.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says evidence suggests COVID-19 may survive for hours to days on surfaces made from a variety of materials, but that it can be easily inactivated by chemical disinfectants. The process of sanitizing all of Rome's parish churches began May 13. Following a request from the Vicariate of Rome, the city of Rome called on the Italian army and the city sanitation department to sanitize all of Rome's parish churches in preparation for the resumption of public liturgies. The army had 80 teams of hazardous-material specialists active throughout Italy in decontaminating and sanitizing needed areas, reported SIR, the news agency of the Italian bishops' conference. Nine of those teams were dedicated to decontaminating all 337 of Rome's parish churches.

Among the norms that must be respected during Masses: members of the public must wear a facial mask inside the church; avoid any form of assembly throughout the structure; and maintain a five-foot distance from each other. Individuals must not participate if they have a fever or flu-like symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has recently tested positive for the coronavirus.

The parish should provide, if possible, special entrances and sections inside for differently-abled people; doors should be left open before and after Mass so people don't have to touch handles; and additional services should be provided during the day if there is not enough room for people wishing to attend a Mass.

While there can be an organist, there should be no choir during this phase of reopening.

The church and objects inside have to be sanitized after each celebration and rooms be aired out where possible.

The sacrament of penance should be administered in an open, ventilated location and both priest and penitent must wear masks and keep a five-foot distance while ensuring a sense of privacy.

Outdoor Masses should be considered and the livestreaming of Masses for those who cannot participate are encouraged.

FRANCE: The French government announced April 28 that it would begin a gradual easing of restrictions starting May 11 after its six-week lockdown. But churches will not be able to resume public liturgies until at least June 2.

According to government directives, places of worship can stay open as they are now and funerals can be celebrated in churches and cemeteries, but with no more than 20 people present.

SWITZERLAND:  The Catholic bishops' conference issued guidelines April 27 on the norms to be followed when church services were set to open to the public starting June 8. Based on each building's normal occupant capacity, only one-third of that number will be allowed inside so people can maintain a personal space of minimum four-square meters (43 square feet).

Family members living together may sit together, but throughout, people can sit only in every other pew. The faithful must leave in a precise order, maintaining social distance and avoiding any crowding, especially outside.

After Mass, all objects and everything people came in contact with must be disinfected, and churches can remain open for the public for visits and prayer. Baptisms, first Communion and marriages can be performed, following current public health norms regarding social distancing and hygiene.

Catholics are encouraged to pray at home and those who are ill or "at risk" should not attend Mass but can still request to receive Communion from those who have been properly formed and commissioned.

GERMANY: Dioceses were able to decide on the date to open churches for public worship after a six-week lockdown. The earliest date was April 20 with other dioceses staggering their start dates until May 10. Only a handful of dioceses were still left as of May 5 without an announced start date.

Each diocese established guidelines with direction from the bishops' conference.

Common protocols included the need for individuals to wear a facemask, sit in designated seats and maintain a distance of five feet from others. There are limits to how many people may be allowed inside and many parishes ask that reservations be made online or by phone. Floors are marked for where to stand when waiting to receive Communion. Some churches have Plexiglas to separate the celebrant from the communicant during the distribution of Communion, others distribute Communion wearing gloves and a face mask.

ARCHDIOCESE OF BALTIMORE: Comprehensive guidelines were released on May 12 for Phase I of reopening parishes, along with a video informing parishioners about "What to Expect When You Return to Mass."

During Phase I, a date for which has not yet been set – churches would be open for private prayer and adoration, with no more than 10 people at a time in the facility. Confessions -- the sacrament of reconciliation -- could be held inside churches or in drive-through settings, as was done by some parishes before Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a shelter-in-place order March 30. Whether inside or outside, the sacrament would require maintaining social distance and privacy.

Masses for weddings and funerals also could be celebrated, along with baptisms; the 10-person rule would apply in those cases as well.

Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori said when it is time to move into Phase I, "we want to be able to resume hearing confessions, opening our churches for prayer. We're looking toward the many who are awaiting baptism, the many who are who have delayed their marriages," he said.

Hogan announced May 13 that effective May 15 at 5 p.m., churches may begin holding indoor services with a maximum attendance of up to 50% capacity and with everyone following physical distancing and hygiene protocols including wearing masks and sanitizing hands.

However, the archdiocese issued a statement the same day emphasizing that its Phase I plan calls for opening churches for private prayer, weddings, funerals, the sacrament of reconciliation and baptisms.

"A date will soon be announced when Phase I will go into effect," the statement said. 

ARCHDIOCESE OF PORTLAND: Masses will resume but with many caveats. No more than 25 at any Mass, social distancing will still be in effect, and not every parish was prepared to restart a Mass schedule effective May 9. The dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is still in effect.

ARCHDIOCESE OF DENVER: This archdiocese canceled public Masses March 13, "we did not foresee the suspension lasting as long as it has," said a May 7 letter from Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Auxiliary Bishop Jorge H. Rodriguez. Denver, too, reopened Masses "in a limited and gradual way," on May 9.

"Extreme caution will be used, that strict physical distancing will be observed, and that pastors will consult the guidance issued by state and local health authorities. This, of course, will mean that access to the Masses celebrated over the next few months will be very limited," they added.

ARCHDIOCESE OF OKLAHOMA CITY AND TULSA: Masses resumed effective May 18. Three pages of the five-page announcement were devoted to an extensive list of "requirements for resumption of public Mass and sacramental life" covering hygienic practices, the responsibilities of liturgical ministers, and what to do upon entering and exiting churches." A sheet of frequently asked questions accompanying the announcement suggested that parishes limit attendance to no more than 33 percent of church occupancy. It also suggested going to weekday Mass to keep churches from overcrowding.

DIOCESE OF ST. PETERSBURG (FLA.): Churches are to be at no more than 25 percent occupancy as Masses resumed May 11. Masses will be held in churches only on weekday mornings; no Sunday Mass resumption was announced.

With Catholic News Service