As Masks Are Creeping Back in Churches, Will Other Restrictions Also Reappear?
New Mexico and Washington are among the states that have recently reinstituted mask mandates applying to all indoor activities, but overall the restrictions in place remain less burdensome than they were a year ago.
As the Delta variant of coronavirus increases in certain areas of the country, some dioceses have started to require masks be worn in church again. Some fear that other restrictions common at the height of the shutdown, including social distancing and limits on attendance, might reappear.
New Mexico is one of the most recent states to enforce mask mandates that apply to churches. Beginning Aug. 20, New Mexico’s Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has re-instated a requirement that face coverings be worn indoors at all public spaces continuing until at least Sept. 15. Offering very limited exceptions, the directive was implemented to quell the state’s rising tide of COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. Catholic bishops in the state have yet to offer a statement or decision with regard to masking-up at Mass.
On Aug. 18, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee instituted a similarly restrictive indoor mask mandate that will require masking at all parish events, including the celebration of Mass, when it comes into force on Aug. 23.
With the state of Louisiana having the highest number of coronavirus cases in the nation currently, the Catholic bishops have announced they will require masks in Catholic schools in compliance with the governor’s order of Aug. 2, and they are recommending, but not requiring, church-goers to wear masks during indoor Masses.
But so far, the restrictions aren’t as burdensome as they were a year ago and the atmosphere seems to be calmer, according to a number of parish priests who spoke with the Register about dealing with the new environment.
“Our general response to the delta variant is more restrained than our response last year — the bishop has requested that we wear masks indoors and do our best to observe ‘social distancing’ but the Sunday obligation remains and our parishioners are doing what they discern best in working to prevent further spread, sickness, and death,” said Father Brent Maher, pastor of St. Agnes Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in an email message to the Register.
In New Orleans, Msgr. Christopher Nalty, pastor of Good Shepherd Parish, said that because of the virus, he is continuing the typical practice during the past year of only anointing parishioners who are in near danger of death, instead of the ordinary policy that anyone who is sick and requests the sacrament can receive it.
But in a telephone interview shortly after visiting a local hospital late last week, Msgr. Nalty said he was encouraged by the response of hospital staff, who seem more confident about dealing with the virus than they were a year ago.
“When I first started going to the hospital last year, there was a real sense of uncertainty, a real sense of fear,” Msgr. Nalty said Aug. 12. “But I found a real sense of calm in the ICU today. You can really feel in the air if everyone is nervous. I didn’t get that today, which is good.”
Msgr. Nalty has adopted as his patron Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, a Redemptorist priest who died in 1867 of Yellow Fever after anointing victims of it; Bl. Seelos is buried in a neighboring parish church in New Orleans.
Coronavirus numbers are relatively low in northeastern New York state, including the city of Plattsburgh, just south of Quebec in the diocese of Ogdensburg. There was no mask mandate in the local Diocese of Ogdensburg as of mid-August. But last year, as the virus traveled, hotspots cropped up in some places that had been coldspots, and Plattsburgh’s pastor is preparing for whatever comes his way.
“I’m thinking we might have to go back to wearing masks. I’m praying that we don’t, and I’m also praying that we don’t have to go back to reductions in capacity,” said Father Kevin McEwan, pastor of Holy Spirit Parish in Plattsburgh.
While masks are a nuisance for many, capacity restrictions are the real enemy for church-goers, since they can prevent people from going to Mass. Father McEwan has a plan if that happens.
“If we go back to restrictions, I’ll increase the number of Masses again so we don’t have to worry about social distancing. I’ll do what I have to do to make sure people can get to Mass, based on directives coming out of our diocese,” Father McEwan said.
New Restrictions Out West
On the other side of the country, Hawaii now requires masks in all indoor public gathering spaces.
And in Keizer, Oregon, about 40 miles southwest of Portland, Father Gary Zerr spoke with the Register as he was bracing to announce to parishioners at St. Edward’s Church that the mask mandate is back, ahead of its Aug. 13 reinstitution. The archbishop of Portland, Archbishop Alexander Sample, reinstated masks in the wake of a directive from Gov. Kate Brown.
“In charity, we must do our part to help stop the spread of this dangerous variant,” the archdiocese said in a statement. “The pandemic has caused a strain on all of us. Restrictions and vaccinations are not 100% effective against the virus, but we have a pastoral responsibility to attempt to mitigate the risks for parishioners and school families.”
Father Zerr said he planned to present the renewed mask mandate as an exercise in accommodating your neighbor and following proper authority, even if some of his parishioners may disagree with the decision.
“I think it’s a teachable moment, about charity and obedience — for me, also,” Father Zerr said. “This is what God put in our path.”
Matt McDonald is the editor of New Boston Post and a National Catholic Register correspondent.