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'Need To Be Cautious': Mass. Houses Of Worship Allowed Open, But Some Holding Off

Governor Charlie Baker has unveiled his administration's multipart plan to restart the Massachusetts economy. Included in the first phase, along with manufacturing and construction projects, are houses of worship. They are now allowed to reopen within certain guidelines, but not all are planning to do so. 

Before the 79 parish churches in the Springfield Catholic Diocese can reopen, Bishop Mitchell Rozanski said several things need to be in place to comply with state guidelines and to keep people safe.

"What I envision is that we would rope off every other pew to be able to keep social distancing," Rozanski said.

Aisles would be marked so people keep 6 feet apart when they walk up to take communion,  which also looks far different than in the past.

Keeping churches sanitized between masses will be a challenge. That's more than janitorial services, Rozanski said. Many church volunteers will need to wipe down door knobs and bathrooms. Another challenge: getting parishioners to wear face masks.

"Some people believe that just because they're in a church or a place of worship, that they're immune from either spreading or getting the virus, and that's not logical," he said.

According to the state guidelines, houses of worship are allowed to fill up to to 40% of the building’s capacity. Rozanski said churches will need a counting system and maybe an online way for parishioners to pre-register for mass.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz of Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass.
Credit File photo / Don Treeger / The Republican / masslive.com/photos
The Republican / masslive.com/photos
Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz of Temple Beth El in Springfield, Mass.

At Temple Beth El in Springfield, Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz said they're talking about how they would safely reopen, but for now, the synagogue is staying closed.

Many congregants are older, she said. And while they can make sure people sit 6 feet from each other, she can't imagine — even at 40% capacity — a few hundred people together in a chapel come September and the Jewish High Holidays.

"For when and how we open up the building, the best word that I could use is — I need to be cautious," Katz said.

'Places of healing, not sources of sickness'

Andrea Cohen-Kiener is the rabbi at Temple Israel in Greenfield, Mass., a small congregation of 120 members. Even with careful protocols already in place for the few people who are working in the temple offices, Cohen-Kiener said she wouldn’t feel comfortable opening up the building to congregants, probably not until the September.

In fact, their online programs are doing very well right now, Cohen-Kiener said, and there’s no need to put people at risk.

"Attendance at services and classes and events has been very, very good, while we're on Zoom," she said. "People from the hilltowns and Vermont can join us. They've been better attended than usual."

The Massachusetts Council of Churches, which represents 18 denominations, said the rules "raise many questions" for religious leaders.

"Churches are designed to be places of healing, not sources of sickness," said a statement from the organization's leaders. "We receive these new minimum safety standards from the state with much concern for those people most at-risk in our churches and our communities."

President of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts Mohammed Dastigir stands in the almost empty prayer hall.
Credit Douglas Hook / MassLive / masslive.com/photos
MassLive / masslive.com/photos
President of the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts Mohammed Dastigir stands in the almost empty prayer hall.

'Patient and mindful'

Before the pandemic, 400 people might show up for Friday prayers at the Islamic Society of Western Massachusetts in West Springfield. Society President Mohammed Dastigir said they're digesting the new guidelines, and the reality is — the pandemic is not over.

"The big thing here is that everyone needs to be patient and be mindful," he said. "And if we can do that, I think we'll be able to ensure that, as the rest of 2020 goes around, we don't have to be in a bad situation in the fall."

And for now, headed into summer, the state is urging religious leaders — when possible — to hold services outdoors.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."
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