U.S. dioceses adopt wide-ranging plans to limit spread of coronavirus

People exchange the sign of peace during Mass at St. Pius X Church in El Paso, Texas, in thie 2019 file photo. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Updated: March 6, 2020

By Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — As worry about the spread of the coronavirus continues and health officials tend to the sick and emphasize best practices for guarding against getting the disease, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, tweeted a message for the faithful in his diocese March 6.

In his “note for a Lenten Friday,” he said: “Those who are ill, from the coronavirus, flu, a cold, etc., and their caregivers, should feel free to dispense themselves from any Lenten disciplines or sacrifices they’ve made. Your illness, and your care for the ill, is your Lenten sacrifice.”

Catholic dioceses nationwide are taking precautions to guard against the spread of the coronavirus and reminding parishioners to take commonsense steps related to hygiene in their personal lives.

Among the most common preventative measures being taken are urging reception of holy Communion in the hand, suspension of distribution of the Communion cup and exchanging the sign of peace without physical contact.

Diocesan leaders also asked people who are ill to refrain from attending Mass.

“If you are sick, stay home until you are feeling better,” Bishop David A. Zubik of Pittsburgh said in a March 2 announcement to parishioners.

From Charlotte, North Carolina, to Honolulu, diocesan officials were implementing general steps recommended by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship to limit the potential spread of illness during Mass. By March 6, the coronavirus had reached at least 82 countries including the United States; and health officials in the U.S. confirmed 250 cases of the illness in 20 states, including at least 14 deaths.

Worldwide by March 6, more than 101,587 cases and 3,460 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus, with most in China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

At the same time, at least one bishop urged calm as people responded to the coronavirus, designated COVID-19 by world health authorities.

“Please encourage your communities during this time of uncertainty to prepare, but not panic,” Auxiliary Bishop Joel M. Konzen, administrator of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said in a Feb. 28 memo. He said precautions preventing the spread of COVID-19 were similar to those to prevent the spread of flu.

In a Feb. 28 letter, Charlotte Bishop Peter J. Jugis urged clergy to remind parishioners to cover coughs and sneezes and throw away used tissues, clean all “high-touch” surfaces daily, avoid shaking hands, wash hands often and not share personal items such as cups and eating utensils.

Like diocesan officials across the U.S., Bishop Jugis encouraged priests not to extend the sign of peace, distribute Communion from the cup or invite people to shake hands in greeting at Mass or other gatherings. Those who distribute holy Communion should wash their hands before Mass and clean their hands again before and after distributing Communion, he said.

Similar precautions were being implemented in the Washington, Baltimore, Chicago and Newark, New Jersey archdioceses and in the Jackson, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Dallas dioceses. The Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, reminded the faithful March 4 that precautions put in place Jan. 10 for the current flu season — such as suspending distribution of the blood of Christ and handshakes during the sign of peace at Mass — remain in effect.

Similarly, in the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, “in light of the escalating concern about the spread of the coronavirus,” Bishop David M. O’Connell issued a five-point list of such precautions March 3 “to be observed in ALL parishes, institutions and organizations within the Diocese of Trenton, effective immediately.”

Beyond those steps, the Archdiocese of Miami suggested that parishes empty the holy water fonts at church entrances, and it also is allowing extraordinary ministers of holy Communion who feel uncomfortable in carrying out their ministry to temporarily step down.

Among the many precautionary steps also being taken in the Baltimore Archdiocese, maintenance workers will step up efforts at parishes to disinfect areas that frequently come into contact with hands, such as tops of pews.

In similar letters to priests and deacons and to school administrators, Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori also advised they follow general guidelines laid out by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Maryland Department of Health, including: Wash your hands frequently with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer or soap and water for at least 20 seconds; cover your mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing; avoid close contact with people who are sick; if you are sick, stay home from work or school; and in general practice good health habits.

The Centers for Disease Control says that hand-washing is superior to using hand sanitizers:”Washing hands with soap and water is the best way to get rid of germs in most situations. If soap and water are not readily available, you can use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.”

Guidelines from the Ohio Department of Health for dealing with contagious illnesses were reviewed in a statement shared with parishes and posted on the Diocese of Cleveland’s website March 2.

The diocese’s Office for Worship also reminded priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to continue practicing good hygiene including frequent hand washing.

Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, updated liturgical practices introduced in January because of the severity of the flu season in Utah. In a March 3 statement, he mandated that holy Communion be received in the hand.

“What is important is that we receive our Blessed Lord in holy Communion,” he said. “How we receive, while very personal to the individual communicant, is not crucial. … Receiving Communion in the hand is every bit as respectful as receiving on the tongue.”

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, general secretary, March 3 requested in an email to staff that they “refrain, until further notice, from planning any new international travel.”

He called on workers who had already purchased tickets for travel to “reconsider the necessity of the trip in consultation with your senior staff supervisor and determine an appropriate plan of action.”

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Honolulu in mid-February declined to put in place any restrictions at Mass. However, Father Pascal Abaya, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the Hawaiian capital told worshippers the Communion cup would no longer be distributed, a step he called “precautionary” during flu season.

The practice continued during the first week of Lent, a diocesan official confirmed.

In New Haven, Connecticut, where the Knights of Columbus has its headquarters, spokesman Joseph Cullen said March 4: “We are keeping those who work for the Knights of Columbus up to date on resources and best practices to avoid infection and contagion.”

“Our local councils and individual Knights, he added, “are praying for the sick and those who have died and we stand ready to comply with any diocesan policies that are applicable to K of C programs. The same is true of civil efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.”

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Editor’s Note: Guidelines developed by the USCCB for influenza and liturgy are posted online at http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacred-art-and-music/influenza-and-the-liturgy.cfm.

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Contributing this story was Tim Swift, the social media coordinator for the Catholic Review and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

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