California Issues Guidelines for Places of Worship to Reopen at Limited Capacity

Churches and other houses of worship across California have been forced to remain closed since mid-March, as part of Gov. Gavin Newsom's shelter-in-place order intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus. (Chris Delmas/AFP/Getty Images)

Places of worship in California can reopen for services, but only after they make major modifications based on a set of guidelines released Monday by state health officials.

The guidelines, issued by the California Department of Public Health, leave it to the discretion of individual counties to decide whether religious gatherings in their jurisdictions can resume. If local officials give the go-ahead, places of worship must limit attendance to 25% capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees — whichever is lower — for at least the first 21 days after reopening.

Most houses of worship have been limited to online and remote services since March, when Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“Together, our actions have helped bend the curve and reduce infections in our state,” said Dr. Sonia Angell, state health officer and California Department of Public Health director, in a statement. “As sectors continue to open with changes that aim to lower risk, remember that COVID-19 is still present in our communities.”

Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship are also required to create COVID-19 prevention plans and establish protocols for screening workers and volunteers. The guidelines detail how to clean and disinfect high-traffic areas such as pews and lobbies, and items such as microphones and stands. Religious leaders and volunteers are urged to wear gloves and to continue enforcing social distancing by reconfiguring seating and avoiding large gatherings such as concerts and celebrations.

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The guidelines ask worshippers to wear masks, avoid sharing prayer books or prayer rugs and skip the collection plate. They also say to avoid food-sharing events and large gatherings for holidays, weddings and funerals, warning that activities such as singing or group recitation "negate” the benefits of social distancing as they may increase coronavirus "transmission through exhaled droplets."

Even with physical distancing, the guidelines caution that in-person worship carries a higher risk of transmitting the virus and increasing the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths and recommend houses of worship shorten services and continue offering remote options for participation.

Read the full guidelines here.

State officials on Monday also released guidelines for resuming in-store retail shopping, again based on approval by individual county health officials.

It’s not immediately clear how soon in-person religious services will resume. Counties that are having success controlling the virus are likely to move quickly. Others with outbreaks — such as Los Angeles County, which has about 60% of California’s roughly 3,800 deaths — may choose to delay.

Many congregations have been anxiously awaiting an announcement on religious services, a source of growing tension after Newsom began relaxing constraints on stores and other secular outlets earlier this month as part of a four-phase plan to reopen the economy.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange announced last week that it is phasing in public masses beginning June 14, starting with restricted numbers of worshippers. At first, choirs will be banned, fonts won’t contain holy water and parishioners won’t perform rituals where they must touch each other.

“We know that God is with us, but at the same time we have to be careful and make sure that we protect each other in this challenging time," Bishop Kevin Vann said Friday.

However, some church leaders aren't eager to reopen. The Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and head of the local NAACP chapter, led a protest Monday against reopening.

“We are not going to be rushing back to church,” he said by phone, noting that many leaders of his denomination have been sickened or died nationwide. Freedom of religion is “not the freedom to kill folks, not the freedom to put people in harm’s way. That’s insane,” he said.

Some 47 of the state's 58 counties have received permission to move deeper into the reopening by meeting standards for controlling the virus.

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In California, most houses of worship have complied with social distancing, making do with online, remote and a few drive-in services.

In the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Archbishop José Gomez called on parishes to celebrate Pentecost — a major religious day for many Christians — next Sunday by holding food and blood drives.

“I think it is important for all us of to be aware that this is a very dangerous illness, and we are making sure that everything is OK when we come back and celebrate the Eucharist together,” he said.

But several thousand churches have vowed to defy the current restrictions on Pentecost, next Sunday, arguing they can do so safely. They have been bolstered by President Trump, who on Friday called churches "essential" and said governors should allow them to reopen.

Two church services that already were held without authorization have been sources of outbreaks; one in Mendocino County and the other in Butte County.

Newsom's cautious approach to reopening has angered opponents who claim the rules violate religious freedoms.

A Pentecostal church in San Diego County lost a federal appeal Friday in its quest to reopen immediately and filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nonprofit Center for American Liberty, which has filed several lawsuits over church restrictions, said the guidelines don’t go far enough.

Newsom “lacks authority to dictate to California’s faithful how they may worship,” said Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco lawyer and the group’s CEO. “Let people who wish to worship safely and together, do so.”

This article includes reporting from Robert Jablon of The Associated Press.