California issues guidelines for church reopenings

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Religious services in California will look much different under rules unveiled Monday that limit attendance to 100 people and recommend worshippers wear masks, limit singing and refrain from shaking hands or hugging.

The state released guidance under which county health departments can approve the reopening of churches, mosques, synagogues and other houses of worship. They have been closed since Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order in March to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

They guidelines worshippers to wear masks, avoid sharing prayer books or prayer rugs and skip the collection plate.

They also say to avoid large gatherings for holidays, weddings and funerals and warn that activities such as singing or group recitation “negate” the safety benefits of social distancing.

The guidelines say even with physical distancing, in-person worship carries a higher risk of transmitting the virus and increasing the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths and recommend houses of worship shorten services.

Each county will have to adopt rules for services to resume within their jurisdictions and then the guidelines will be reviewed by state health officials after 21 days.

It’s not immediately knon how soon in-person services will resume. Counties that are having success controlling the virus are likely to move quickly. Others with outbreaks – such as Los Angeles County, which has about 60% of California’s roughly 3,800 deaths – may choose to delay.

“A county does not need the state’s permission to allow the opening of a house of worship” but each facility must first meet the guidelines. They include limiting in-person gatherings to 25% of building capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower.

Worshippers have been eagerly waiting after Newsom began relaxing constraints on stores and other secular outlets as part of a four-phase plan to reopen the economy. Some religious institutions have been making safety plans for weeks.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange announced last week that it is phasing in public Masses beginning June 14, starting with restricted numbers of worshippers. At first, choirs will be banned, fonts won’t contain holy water and parishioners won’t perform rituals where they must touch each other.

“I insist that that’s the most important thing – that we protect one another,” Bishop Kevin Vann said Friday. “We know that God is with us, but at the same time we have to be careful and make sure that we protect each other in this challenging time.”

Some 47 of the state’s 58 counties have received permission to move deeper into the reopening by meeting state standards for controlling the virus. The state on Monday cleared the way for in-store shopping to resume statewide with social distancing restrictions, although counties get to decide whether to permit it.

Some places of worship around the country opened over the weekend after President Donald Trump declared them essential and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for reopening faith organizations.

In California, most houses of worship have complied with social distancing, making do with online, remote and a few drive-in services.

In the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest with 5 million members, Archbishop Jose Gomez called on parishes to celebrate Pentacost – a major religious day for many Christians – next Sunday by holding food and blood drives.

“I think it is important for all us of to be aware that this is a very dangerous illness, and we are making sure that everything is OK when we come back and celebrate the Eucharist together,” he said.

But several thousand churches have vowed to defy the current stay-at-home order on Pentacost, arguing they can do so safely.

Two church services that already were held without authorization have been sources of outbreaks; one in Mendocino County and the other in Butte County.

Newsom’s cautious approach to reopening has angered opponents who claim the rules violate religious freedoms.

A Pentecostal church in San Diego County lost a federal appeal Friday in its quest to reopen immediately. The South Bay United Pentacostal Church of Chula Vista immediately filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. As of Monday, California had at least 94,558 confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than 3,000 hospitalizations and 3,795 deaths.

The state is still seeing troubling COVID-19 flare-ups. More than 150 employees at a Farmer John meatpacking plant in Vernon, an industrial city south of Los Angeles, contracted the coronavirus. Imperial County, across the border from Mexico, has seen a surge. Two inmates from the California Institution for Men in San Bernardino County died Sunday from what appear to be complications related to COVID-19.

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Stefanie Dazio in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

FILE – In this April 6, 2020 file photo, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, front, celebrates the Chrism Mass for the faithful of the nation’s largest Catholic Archdiocese in Los Angeles. California says churches can resume in-person services but the congregations will be limited to less than 100 and worshippers should wear masks, avoid sharing prayer books and skip the collection plate. The state Department of Public Health released a framework Monday, May 25, for county health officials to permit houses of worship to reopen. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
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