As Some Churches Return to Full Capacity, Vaccination Status Complicates Lifting COVID-19 Restrictions

As US dioceses and parishes celebrated the Holy Spirit’s descent and the birth of the Church on Pentecost, many of them were able to reduce the curbs on worship that have been in place because of the pandemic.

People exit Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine Catholic church on May 23, 2021 in New York City. On May 19, all pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, venue capacities and restaurant curfews were lifted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
People exit Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine Catholic church on May 23, 2021 in New York City. On May 19, all pandemic restrictions, including mask mandates, social distancing guidelines, venue capacities and restaurant curfews were lifted by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. (photo: Noam Galai / Getty)

On Pentecost Sunday, there was some welcome news for local Catholics in New York City, which was at the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic during much of last year.

Churches in the Archdiocese of New York were finally allowed to return to full capacity — but with a couple of continuing restrictions. Attendees at Mass were asked to continue to wear masks, while those who have not been vaccinated were asked to social distance except from people in their own households.

As U.S. dioceses and parishes celebrated the Holy Spirit’s descent and the birth of the Church on Pentecost, many of them in other parts of the nation are similarly rolling back mask and social distancing protocols and welcoming back parishioners who worshipped from home during the pandemic.

After the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance on May 13 that permits fully vaccinated people to resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, dioceses across the country have updated the COVID-19 restrictions which parishes have followed for more than a year. 

While some dioceses have dropped many of these restrictions, others note the CDC’s guideline that the unvaccinated should continue wearing masks and social distancing and call for separating parishioners by vaccine status or prohibiting them from participating in some activities.

As they update liturgical and other procedures, some dioceses have also lifted or plan to lift dispensations from the Sunday Mass obligation put in place during the pandemic. 

According to the CDC, almost 61% of Americans have received at least one vaccination. Some experts estimate that herd immunity would require 80% to 90% of the population to reach COVID-19 immunity, either through prior infection or vaccination, according to the University of Missouri Health Care.

The CDC says a person is fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose in a two-dose series, such as Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine such as Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen vaccine. 

“The immunity seems to be going up and people are encouraged by that,” said Msgr. Anthony Marcaccio, pastor of St. Pius X in Greensboro, North Carolina. “I think they’re getting more comfortable with it. … They’re looking for opportunity to get together, some can’t wait.”


Continuing Limitations

The opportunity may not extend to all, however. While emphasizing in a May 21 letter to pastors in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minnesota, that vaccine status doesn’t affect whether people can attend Mass and parish events and activities, Bishop Donald Kettler strongly encouraged pastors to permit only fully vaccinated clergy and other individuals to distribute Holy Communion. The bishop also stated that only vaccinated staff, volunteers and participants will be allowed to attend the diocese’s multi-day camps, gatherings, retreats and similar events. 

A diocesan spokesperson could not be reached for comment. 

In mid-May, the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon, announced on its website that the fully vaccinated are no longer required to wear masks at Mass and faith gatherings but that pastors must set aside space for those who aren’t fully vaccinated, who the CDC says must continue wearing masks and maintain six feet between households. 

Stating that the fully vaccinated shouldn’t experience a sense of discrimination, the archdiocese suggested that parishes designate separate sides of their churches for the vaccinated and unvaccinated. The COVID-regulated 50% overall capacity limits have been lifted. 

Last week the Oregon Health Authority revised its official masking guidance to require the state’s businesses, employers and faith institutions to require proof of vaccination from patrons who want to enter without masks.

As of May 21, neither of Oregon’s two dioceses, Portland and the Diocese of Baker, had issued further updates based on the state’s new requirements. 

A number of other dioceses also have announced that parishes can plan to stop requiring the vaccinated to wear masks and social distance within the next month. 

This includes the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which announced on May 14 that as parishes allow the vaccinated to attend Mass and gatherings without masks, they must also designate a mask section in their church for those not fully vaccinated and those more comfortable around mask wearers.   

In a May 17 letter, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, announced that masks would no longer be required for the vaccinated and that he expects to end capacity limits on June 11. He added that “for privacy reasons, we must rely on the good will and honesty of parishioners about their vaccination status.”

The archbishop also gave approval for pastors to designate a worship space for those who want to social distance and wear masks. 

The Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama, will end its COVID-19 regulations on May 29 and the diocese of Boise, Idaho has already removed its pandemic restrictions. 

In abrogating its social distancing and mask requirements, the Baker Diocese, based in Redmond, is not requiring separation by vaccination status. 

“Of course, people are free to attend church with masks on; but those who serve in a public role at Mass are not to wear masks: priests, deacons, acolytes, altar servers, readers, Eucharistic ministers, ushers, greeters,” Bishop Liam Cary stated. 


‘Be Patient’

Since the Charlotte Diocese in North Carolina has dropped mask and social distancing requirements and Masses and confession have resumed pre-pandemic schedules on May 23, Msgr. Marcaccio is encouraging those who have been away from the parish because of the pandemic to transition back by attending the less-attended daily Mass first. He said he’s asking parishioners to be respectful of others who may have experienced trauma during the pandemic. 

“When you think about it, we’ve gone from really not being able to see people who are critically ill in the hospitals to visiting seniors through glass windows at nursing homes” he told the Register. “It’s been so much and so many changes and then sometimes the changes seem to be based on some dubious statements and so I think it’s caused some confusion. There’s been confusion, a lot of change that causes anxiety and I just want people to be patient with one another.”

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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