Places of worship in Minnesota may open at 25% occupancy starting Wednesday so long as they follow public health guidelines, Gov. Tim Walz said Saturday.
Walz expressed reservations with the change, which comes as the coronavirus continues to spread. But it resolved a conflict with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which dropped plans to defy Walz and reopen churches Tuesday at one-third capacity.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda said in a statement that the executive order from Walz is “an important breakthrough … that allows faith communities to accommodate up to 250 people for worship services, provided precautions are taken.”
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, credited faith leaders with pushing for the change, saying that churches “rightfully felt left behind as other businesses were given more room to reopen.”
Walz said the decision to loosen restrictions was difficult because even though worship is essential for many Minnesotans, large gatherings raise a significant risk of spreading the virus.
On Saturday, the state reported the largest one-day jump in cases thus far — 840. And deaths from COVID-19 in the past week — 152 — exceeded the previous seven-day tally.
“We are still on the way up — we are not at that peak yet,” Walz told reporters. He said the state was launching a partnership with faith leaders to make sure “that as we move to try and have some of these places of worship open up they’re done with a common goal of the safety and security of not only the congregants, but of the community at large.”
Beginning Wednesday, places of worship, funeral homes and other venues that offer gathering space for weddings, funerals and planned services may do so with over 10 people attending, so long as they adhere to certain requirements, according to the executive order.
The venues must ensure a minimum of 6 feet of physical distance between households. At indoor settings, occupancy must not exceed 25% of normal capacity as determined by the fire marshal, with a maximum of 250 people in a single, self-contained space. In outdoor settings, gatherings must not exceed 250 individuals.
Hebda said it’s up to parishes to decide if they’re ready for a return to public mass, adding that the obligation to attend continues to be dispensed “if the faithful feel safer at home.”
Can choose to reopen
The archdiocese, as well as the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said last week that they would defy Walz’s decision at that time to limit religious services to 10 people.
On Saturday, the Rev. Lucas Woodford, president of the Minnesota South District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, praised Walz’s announcement. It doesn’t mean all 247 congregations that Woodford oversees will reopen. Rather, they will now have that choice.
“We are extremely grateful the governor entered into a dialogue with us,” said Woodford, calling Walz “genuine and sincere.”
Walz and faith leaders met late last week to resolve the dispute, which took on a national dimension Friday when President Donald Trump threatened to attempt to override governors who failed to immediately open houses of worship, although it was unclear what authority he could invoke.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Saturday was set to publish guidelines to help churches open safely. Those that choose to reopen must develop preparedness plans, including detailed cleaning practices and social distancing guidelines. The state is strongly recommending that all congregants wear masks and refrain from group singing, said Jan Malcolm, state health commissioner.
But Malcolm urged venues to consider sticking with changes already implemented, such as for virtual services, rather than bringing together large groups. She added that people 65 and older and others at high risk from the virus should consider avoiding services.
Medical conditions that put people at greater risk range from lung disease, serious heart conditions and cancer to severe obesity, diabetes and kidney disease that requires dialysis.
“To be candid, the 250 number terrifies me …” Walz said. “[But] the faith community leaders have been working on this for weeks and have been incredibly thoughtful.”
Intensive care units at Twin Cities hospitals have been getting busier over the past two weeks as they treat more patients with COVID-19 and other health problems. Malcolm said Saturday that two Level 1 trauma centers have had to activate additional beds.
“We continue to see pretty rapid increases in our numbers of cases and deaths,” she said. “So, even though we are slowly and carefully trying to open up … this does not mean we’re on the other side of this.”
Some will livestream
Several large faith communities, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America in the Twin Cities and the United Methodist Church for Minnesota and the Dakotas, said they will not immediately return to in-person services.
Bishop Bruce Ough of the United Methodist Church for Minnesota and the Dakotas said he will continue to urge his 350 congregations in Minnesota to continue to livestream services.
“The best way we can heal the broken world is to do everything in our power to mitigate the impact of this virus,” Ough said.
The prospect of 250 people gathering outdoors to worship or for a wedding invites questions about restrictions on high school and college graduation ceremonies, Walz acknowledged. One difference is that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued updated safety guidance on Friday for houses of worship, the governor said, but not for other ceremonies.
And Walz stressed that just because a wedding ceremony can take place, that doesn’t mean the state is relaxing rules for post-ceremony gatherings.
“We’re talking about the ceremonies themselves,” Malcolm said, “and not the celebrations that typically accompany those ceremonies.”
The Minnesota Council of Churches issued a statement in support of congregations not yet ready to open, including those serving African-Americans, Latinos, American Indians, refugees and immigrants, and seniors.
Some faith communities, including the Hindu Society of Minnesota, greeted the governor’s announcement with cautious optimism. President Pooja Bastodkar said they have been strictly adhering to the governor’s rules. Now, a committee will determine next steps.
“No doubt there is a great sense of urgency and excitement in returning back to the temple, but we have to be very, very careful,” Bastodkar said.