By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — A draft of guidelines the White House is preparing to issue about steps to take in reopening parts of the U.S. that had been closed during the pandemic includes suggestions for reopening houses of worship.
The section on faith communities says they “may consider and accept or reject” the guidelines, “consistent with their own faith tradition.”
A copy of the 17-page draft, based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published April 27 by The Washington Post, says faith communities should consider limiting their public gatherings in the first phase of reopening and offer means of virtual participation for those in vulnerable conditions.
In all the gradual stages of reopening, the draft of the report recommends that faith communities consider temporarily limiting the sharing of hymnals or other worship materials and consider using a collection box in one place instead of passing collection baskets. It also suggests not having choir or music groups during services at this time or at least limiting the number of choir members and keeping them at least six feet apart.
In all phases of reopening, the report urges people to continue good hygiene practices and make sure that everyone over the age of 2 wear cloth face coverings at all gatherings and keeping social distancing when inside, apart from those who live in the same household.
The guidance also says all buildings should be checked for proper ventilation systems and circulation of air with open windows or fans.
The White House is expected to make these guidelines public in early May.
In mid-April, the White House issued a plan for gradual reopening to take place in three phases, with large venues reopening under strict social distancing rules and schools and day-care centers remaining closed. This newer guidance offers more specific recommendations for how places in the country can best reopen, stressing that all decisions should be made locally in collaboration with local health officials.
On the state level, governors are also presenting their plans to gradually reopen. Mike DeWine, governor of Ohio, for example, presented his plans April 27 to begin reopening.
In response to his plan, the Ohio Catholic conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, issued a statement April 28 thanking Catholics in the state for their patience, cooperation and understanding during this time.
“We realize the frustration, sadness, and loss the faithful felt not to be able to gather personally” at Sunday Masses, the conference said.
“Out of deep concern for the common good as well as the physical and spiritual well-being of all the people of Ohio, the Catholic Bishops of Ohio have agreed once again to cooperate with the governor, and to support and abide by the multiphased approach to returning to work and eventual public gathering in large groups,” the state’s bishops added.
To that end, they said they would extend the temporary suspension of all publicly celebrated Masses/liturgies ending until May 29, “with the hope of publicly celebrating together the Solemnity of Pentecost on the weekend of May 30/31.”
“Each of the bishops of Ohio, once again, dispense the Catholic faithful who reside in their respective dioceses and all other Catholics currently in their territories from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass during this time,” they said, adding that they ask for “cooperation and adherence of all the faithful to the governor’s directives during this period.”
In the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, Bishop Daniel E. Flores posted a statement on social media April 27 saying he has been following the latest advice and directives from the federal government, the CDC and the state’s governor and local officials about when “we can, in some form, safely resume the public celebration of Masses in the Diocese of Brownsville.”
He said he expected to meet with diocesan leaders soon on this issue.
“I, more than anyone, wish to see the Catholic faithful present for Masses and other church celebrations, but it must be an orderly and phased reopening that protects the elderly, those with chronic illnesses and the wider community,” he said.
The bishop also asked for Catholics to pray as leaders make these decisions and for their help “as any new protocols are put into effect.”
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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim