Virginia Parishes Near DC Face Delays in Reopening

After the reopening plan was announced last week, Bishop Burbidge said parishes in the diocese could resume public Masses depending “on proper social distancing and the ability of parish clergy and staff to safely accommodate parishioners.”

St. Mary's in Alexandria, Va., the state's first Catholic church. The church was named a minor basilica Jan. 14, 2018.
St. Mary's in Alexandria, Va., the state's first Catholic church. The church was named a minor basilica Jan. 14, 2018. (photo: Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As Virginia’s governor halted the reopening of several northern counties on Tuesday, the Diocese of Arlington said that Bishop Michael Burbidge is monitoring the situation and would be responding to changes in the diocese as they happen.

A spokesperson for the diocese told CNA that Bishop Burbidge met with a working group on Tuesday to plan for “scenarios we may enter in the coming week.”

"Final plans are being worked out as we speak, but we anticipate moving forward on a regional basis consistent with the Governor’s announcement," CNA was told.

“As the Governor continues to release information, we evaluate it and adapt as necessary,” the spokesperson said. 

On Tuesday morning, Gov. Ralph Northam, D, of Virginia delayed “Phase One” of his reopening plan for the state from going into effect in “Northern Virginia,” the several counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area.

While previously, many gatherings of more than ten people in the state were banned—including at religious services—Virginia’s new reopening plan allows for retail and restaurant establishments to begin opening their doors to customers, and religious services can be held indoors at churches, at 50% or less capacity. It will go into effect on May 15.

After the reopening plan was announced last week, Bishop Burbidge  said parishes in the diocese could resume public Masses depending “on proper social distancing and the ability of parish clergy and staff to safely accommodate parishioners.” The bishop had suspended public Masses in the diocese on March 16 in response to the pandemic.

Bishop Burbidge also accounted for the governor’s caveat for reopening the state saying the plan was conditional, “unless a local jurisdiction determines otherwise.” Local officials in Northern Virginia counties and cities wrote the governor over the weekend saying that the region was not ready to reopen; Northam issued his updated order on Tuesday granting their request.

A spokesperson for the governor confirmed to CNA that “places of worship” in the region, as defined in the order, “may continue to have in-person services with 10 or less attendees.”

The Arlington diocese spans the northern part of the state and includes all the counties and cities affected by Northam’s new order: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties; Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas, and Manassas Park cities; and the towns of Dumfries, Herndon, Leesburg, and Vienna.

However, it also includes parishes in counties further south and west that would not be affected by order’s exceptions.

Northam had previously issued a stay-at-home order during the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which curtailed many gatherings of more than 10 people in the state including at any religious services. Violations of the order were determined to be a class 1 misdemeanor, the strictest class of misdemeanor offence.

The Washington, D.C. region has seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and is one of the metropolitan areas around the country which has not yet had a significant decline in new cases, one of the widely-accepted benchmarks for reopening public accommodations.

Northam noted on Tuesday that the region has a significantly higher positive test rate for COVID-19 than the rest of the state, and reported more than 700 cases in the previous 24 hours, compared to just around 270 cases in the rest of the state.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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This “21st century Pentecost moment” brought on by the pandemic, Bishop Michael Burbidge said, has underscored the need for good communication in the Church across all forms of media, in order to invite people into the fullness of the Gospel.