Urban Milwaukee | Bruce Murphy | June 1, 2020
For the first time since closing down at the onset of the pandemic, Catholic Churches in the area offered Mass on Sunday. Of the 193 parishes in the 10-county archdiocese, 40 decided not to reopen, according to Amy Grau, spokesperson for the archdiocese.
Among the more than 150 churches reopening was St. John’s Cathedral, where Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki presided. “There were not a lot of people,” Grau told Urban Milwaukee. “Only about 30 to 35 attended.” Given the pandemic, she noted, “a lot of people are not comfortable coming back to Mass.”
Still, even with smaller numbers than usual, St. John’s and any other churches in the city are violating the city shutdown order, which bans any gathering of more than 10 people.
City Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik told the Journal Sentinel she was concerned about this, given outbreaks of COVID-19 that have occurred in religions settings. Such outbreaks have occurred in the U.S. and other countries. Singing and chanting by congregants can propel droplets, spreading the virus, Kowalik said. “We know that the issue with COVID of congregating for 10 minutes or more, less than 6 feet apart creates an opportunity for exposure.”But Archbishop Listecki, after a discussion with Mayor Tom Barrett, decided not to reopen churches on the city’s South Side, which now has the highest level of COVID-19 cases in the metro area, as Urban Milwaukee has reported. “The archbishop agreed that it was not a good idea,” Grau said.
That includes The Basilica of St. Josaphat, she noted. Many of the south-side parishes are predominantly Hispanic, a population that has suffered the highest rate of positive cases in the city. And some of them have a huge numbers of parishioners, Grau noted, which would make social distancing more difficult to do.
The archdiocese had decided to stop offering public celebrations of Mass in mid March. The reopening more than than two months later was explained by Listecki on youtube and the archdiocese created rules for all churches to ensure social distancing, including:
-Pews are blocked and only every third pew is used, to assure all congregants are six feet apart;
-No parish may exceed 25 percent of its capacity;
-Signage should be placed on entrance doors asking anyone with fever or flu-like symptoms not to enter the church.
-Hymnals should be removed from the pews, and bulletins should not be distributed;
-Communion must be received in the hand (not on the tongue) and those distributing Communion must wash their hands before and after distribution; and
-All congregants are urged to wear face masks.
“Everything went really well” on Sunday, with every church following these guidelines, Grau said. “Every single person at Cathedral wore a mask.”
Grau has suggested the churches are “essential,” but the definition of what are essential services is determined by government health officials, and such orders were just upheld in the a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that a California shutdown order that included restrictions on places of worship was consistent with the free exercise clause of the First Amendment, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 5-4 decision. “Similar or more severe restrictions apply to comparable secular gatherings, including lectures, concerts, movie showings, spectator sports and theatrical performances, where large groups of people gather in close proximity for extended periods of time,” Roberts wrote.
Across the U.S. different archdioceses have handled the pandemic in different ways with some celebrating Mass, some not and some looking for a middle ground, holding outdoor or drive-in Masses. Grau says Milwaukee has received queries from other dioceses on how it is handling the pandemic. “I feel like we are kind of leading the way.”