NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – As parts of New York State begin to reopen, houses of worship remain closed.
But starting Thursday, restrictions are beginning to ease and they can at least open their doors to some people.
Timothy Cardinal Dolan outlined preparations for the reopening of 288 churches, upon the approval of health and state officials.
The reopening will happen in phases:
- Phase I – Churches Open for Private Prayer and Confessions
- Phase II - Celebration of Baptisms and Marriages (limited to 10 attendees)
- Phase III - Celebration of the Rite of Distributing Holy Communion Outside of Mass
- Phase IV – Celebration of Daily and Funeral Masses with Limited Attendance
- Phase V – Celebration of Sunday Mass with Supervised Attendance
- Resumption of Full Parish Mass Schedules and Sacramental Activities
Speaking at a news conference, religious leaders indicated there would be changes to start: No distribution of Holy Communion, Holy water and baptismal fonts will be emptied, and there will be distribution of masks at churches, for example. Churches will be regularly sanitized and disinfected. Signage will be placed on entrance doors instructing anyone with fever or flu-like symptoms not to enter the church. Parishioners must wear masks. Maximum occupancy will be 25% of capacity. Hand sanitizer will be available at the entrance of the church.
Inside Our Savior Parish, sections of pews were marked for families or individuals and benches were marked to sit six feet apart.
Reconciliation is usually done in a confined space, but it's been set up differently to allow for a safe social distance between the parishioner and the priest.
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Dolan said that initial steps to reopening will be comparatively easy to arrange, until the time comes to reopen for Sunday Mass, which he speculated might be at least six weeks or so from now in New York City.
"Next week, at least the churches will be physically open for prayers and visits," Dolan said.
Dolan said small ceremonies like baptisms and weddings would be considered.
"We might move to consider small limited baptisms and weddings .. and after that, the communion distribution services and funerals," he said. "Sunday mass, boy, in the city, I don't know if we could, six weeks would be a dream, wouldn't it?"
The Diocese of Brooklyn is forming its own similar plan for the areas hit hard by COVID.
"We will move slowly but surely to get to maximum participation as quickly as we can," said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
WEB EXTRA: Read the reopening plans (.pdf)
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, stands behind the state's strict orders.
"I suggested forming a committee of rabbis representing the different communities, denominations, sitting down and saying what can we all present as a plan for reopening houses of worship." he said. "You cannot violate health protocols in the name of holiness so you have to wear the mask, stay socially distant and no more than 10 people inside or outside."
Potasnik says weddings will be discussed, along with Bar Mitzvahs "where you could have that group and then maybe have people on Zoom."
Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun erred on the side of caution, sending a letter to congregants stating, "We do not envision reopening in the near future ... We must be very cautious in reopening."
Shaykh Ibad Wali said despite permission to allow 10 people to worship, the Hillside Islamic Center will stay closed, encouraging prayer from home.
"Preservation of life supersedes any religious matter," he said."
There is no date set for reopening but he estimates being closed a few more weeks.
"Make sure as we head back into our places of worship we head back in a structured manner where we are valuing life and putting that above all else," Wali told CBS2's Jenna DeAngelis. "We're probably gonna implement a registration system, equal opportunity, free for anyone to register whether it's electronic or come in person to sign up and then we're gonna test it out. If there's a window of three hours to perform a prayer, we're going to start off with 10 people on the hour every hour and take it from there."
"We're working with religious institutions. Right now, they can have up to 10 people with strict social distancing guidelines at religious gatherings," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.
"If it's more than 10 people, the NYPD and other enforcement agencies will show up and tell people to move. If they don't move or they don't disperse, then it goes to summonses," Mayor Bill de Blasio said.
The governor said he'd like to see if religious institutions can get creative.
"We've asked them to consider drive-in and parking lot services for religious ceremonies," he said.
Cuomo said he's working with an interfaith advisory council made up of representatives of all different religious communities across the state. He said he understands people want to get back to places of worship, but they have to be smart about reopening.
"I think even at this time of stress and when people are so anxious and so confused, I think those religious ceremonies can be very comforting," he said. "But we need to find out how to do it and do it safely."
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Across the river in New Jersey, the Archdiocese of Newark opened to private prayer over the weekend. For now, there are no masses and schedules vary from church to church.
"It's important that we move forward," said Rev. John Paladino. "But at the same time acknowledging that our faith in God is important and that we need to come to Him in times of turmoil, trial and tribulation."
The governor reiterated the important of wearing a mask during services, saying it's required if people want to participate.
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