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California releases COVID-19 guidelines for in-person religious services

The state released the guidelines on Monday.

SAN DIEGO — On Monday, May 25, the California Department of Public Health and the State of California Department of Industrial Relations released guidelines for places of worship that wish to hold religious and/or cultural services.

Faith leaders are still strongly encouraged to offer remote services, especially for people that are older and/or have health conditions and still wish to participate.

Faith leaders must limit attendance to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees, whichever is lower. This limitation will be in effect for the first 21 days of a county public health department’s approval of religious services and cultural ceremonies at places of worship within their jurisdictions. 

After those 21 days, the California Department of Public Health, in consultation with county Departments of Public Health, will review and assess the impact of these imposed limits on public health and provide further direction as part of "a phased-in restoration of activities in places of worship."

Places of worship must use these guidelines to develop a health and safety plan. In order to limit the spread of coronavirus, the California Department of Public Health and OSHA also recommend the following changes: 

"Discontinue offering self-service food and beverages. Do not hold potlucks or similar family-style eating and drinking events that increase the risk of cross contamination. If food and beverages must be served, provide items in single-serve, disposable containers whenever possible. Employees or volunteers serving food should wash hands frequently and wear disposable gloves and face coverings. 

• Strongly consider discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets. Modify practices such as limiting the number people reciting or singing, ensuring physical distancing greater than six feet between people, or opt to celebrate these practices outside with physical distancing, etc., if these practices cannot be discontinued. 

• Consider modifying practices that are specific to particular faith traditions that might encourage the spread of COVID-19. Examples are discontinuing kissing of ritual objects, allowing rites to be performed by fewer people, avoiding the use of a common cup, offering communion in the hand instead of on the tongue, providing pre-packed communion items on chairs prior to service, etc., in accordance with CDC guidelines." 

The document notes that activities such as "food preparation and service, delivery of items to those in need, childcare and daycare services, school and educational activities, in-home caregiving, counseling, and office work" would follow these guidelines instead.

"Even with adherence to physical distancing, convening in a congregational setting of multiple different households to practice a personal faith carries a relatively higher risk for widespread transmission of the COVID-19 virus, and may result in increased rates of infection, hospitalization, and death, especially among more vulnerable populations. In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing," the document reads in part.

The Rev. Carlos Medina of St. Patrick's said space inside his North Park church has been measured and allows 65 people to enter and be spaced six feet apart. "There could be more people, since these measurements and calculations did not take into consideration households," he said in a letter dated May 16 about a preliminary draft of the plan. "However, on average Sundays prior to the ongoing pandemic, two of our Masses reached over 200 people in average attendance."

Medina added that St. Patrick's will continue to livestream or record masses on YouTube with the link posted on Facebook and his website.

Eckery said that although baptisms, weddings and funeral masses will be allowed beginning the second week of June, distancing and other measures must be complied with.

The new rules include:

-- No wine (traditionally shared from a communal glass) during Communion, and wafers will placed on the tongue.

-- Face masks will be required.

-- Hand sanitizers should be used.

-- Physical distancing will be compulsory.

-- Hymns will be restricted.

"Masses will need to be shorter, essential liturgical parts shall be retained and some can be omitted and a few others are outright forbidden," Eckery said.

Prayer missals and songbooks will be removed, and choirs are being eliminated. "Singing won't be allowed because of evidence suggesting droplets projected while singing travel further than those generated by normal speech," the diocesan spokesman said, adding that the diocese will be setting guidelines for all parishes to follow.

The letter posted on a private Facebook page for 300 San Diego Catholics was sent to all priests of the diocese.

"The involvement of priests and pastors has been central to developing a practical and effective plan to reopen safely," he said.

According to guidelines distributed to parishioners at St. Patrick's:

-- The faithful must remain in their pew/place for the duration of the Mass/service/celebration.

-- They may recite prayers and responses where appropriate to the Mass/celebration, but they must not sing, or shake hands. They must refrain from touching their faces.

-- Instrumental music or a single vocalist will be allowed -- even though parishioners won't be singing.

-- Instead of shaking hands or exchanging hugs at the Sign Of Peace, the priest will encourage parishioners to wave or nod to each other.

-- The distribution of the Eucharist will take place at the end of the Mass, to minimize the movement of people. There will be markings taped on the floor as a guide for social distance so that communion line at the end of Mass maintains 6 feet of separation between communicants. The Eucharist is to be received only in the hand.

-- There should be no social gatherings before or after Mass.

-- Bishop McElroy doesn't approve of Mass in a parking lot where people stay in their cars, so people will be asked to bring their own chairs.

-- Facemasks/coverings are not required for children under the age of 2 years old due to the risk of suffocation, in accordance with county health regulations.

-- There are to be no altar servers.

-- Holy water fonts will be empty.

The Rev. Medina of St. Patrick's suggested a special location may be set up for people with conditions such as allergies or a dry throat "so that their cough may not cause distress to others. We might need a parishioner physician to oversee these parishioners who are likely to be non-contagious."

In his letter, Bishop McElroy said he spoke at length Friday with Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County's public health director, "and received support for our plan to reopen our parishes in a manner that will vigorously safeguard public health."

You can read all of the guidelines here: 

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