Washington is relaxing restrictions on the size of gatherings for religious services put in place some two months ago because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Religious groups in Phase 2 areas of the state’s emergency order – which include Spokane and most other Eastern Washington counties – will be able to hold indoor services with as many as 50 people or 25% of the building’s capacity, whichever is less, and as many as five people for in-home services such as counseling.
“We know that people treasure religious gatherings,” Gov. Jay Insleee said in announcing the new rules.
The rules apply to all worship services, religious study groups, weddings and funerals, with no limits on the number of services a church can hold in a day.
The numbers in the limitations do not include the staff from the religious organization, who should wear personal protective equipment when appropriate. The facilities should be cleaned and sanitized frequently.
Participants must follow social distancing rules, so no physical contact between participants and no communal sharing of food or beverages is allowed. They must wear face masks, even when singing, and no choirs can perform.
“The science has been pretty clear on this. The virus is transmitted through exhalation,” Inslee said.
Churches are encouraged to keep a log of attendance for two weeks in case it’s needed for contact tracing of an outbreak.
In other parts of the state still in Phase 1 – which include King, Snohomish and Pierce counties – religious groups will be able to hold outdoor services with as many as 100 people on the group’s property.
The new guidelines emphasize, however, that remote services should be held whenever possible.
Bishop Thomas Daly, of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, said parishes in counties that are in Phase 2 of the reopening protocols would offer Mass this Saturday and Sunday to celebrate Pentecost, which marks the birth of the Christian church. The diocese was working with other bishops and health experts on a plan for resuming services and will follow the new state guidelines.
The bishop urged Eastern Washington Catholics to be patient, act responsibly and realize that for the time being Mass will not be the same. Face masks will be worn, there will be no singing, homilies will be shortened and there will be no exchanging of a “sign of peace,” a handshake with surrounding congregants at one point in the service. The parishes will keep a log of those who attend in case it’s needed for contact tracing. Those who are ill or are anxious about attending a gathering should stay home.
Bishop Gretchen Rehberg, of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, said she thought the governor was being “extremely generous” with the new rules.
“He’s actually allowing that probably a little sooner than I expected,” Rehberg said.
Churches in the diocese can start offering indoor services when they can meet state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines plus a few of Rehberg’s, which include no singing at services because of the danger of spreading the virus.
“Singing is a part of our worship, but worship can happen without singing,” she said.
She didn’t think many of the congregations in the diocese would have indoor services this weekend because plans will need to be submitted and approved, but online services would continue.
“The church is never closed. Our buildings are closed,” Rehberg said.
In announcing the new guidelines, Inslee was joined through teleconferencing connections by representatives of Muslim, Jewish and Lutheran organizations who supported the rules.
Aneelah Afzali, of the Muslim Association of the Puget Sound, said the rules represent “a step in the direction” of returning to traditional services, adding: “We don’t worship our place of worship. We worship God.”
But Mark Miloscia, executive director of the Family Policy Institute, called the limitations disappointing after churches have been closed for more than two months.
“Tribal casinos, big box stores, even pot shops have less regulations,” Miloscia, a former state legislator, said during a video on Facebook. “We still have the First Amendment.”
Asked at a news conference about the state’s ability to restrict religious services that have constitutional protections, Inslee replied that the state is responsible for the safety of its citizen. He believes the state is on strong constitutional grounds with its restrictions.
People who disagree can challenge the restrictions and “we have a judicial system to decide these things,” he said
Legislators and gubernatorial candidates challenging Inslee have filed lawsuits challenging his emergency orders. Miloscia urged members of the socially conservative Christian institute to file more suits and engage in civil disobedience against the orders.
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