Churches in California can begin holding services again at a limited capacity, the state announced on Monday.
The California health department ruled that, subject to the approval of local authorities, churches in the state can begin reopening along with in-store retail shopping. The state had originally placed churches in a later reopening stage than some businesses which have already begun reopening.
Under the new 21-day policy, houses of worship can hold religious services at up to 25% capacity with a maximum of 100 attendees.
Churches have to implement virus prevention plans, recommend face coverings, set social distancing guidance, and “consider eliminating singing and group recitations.” Any singing or recitations “should be conducted outside,” the department said.
After 21 days, the state health department will reassess the policy, which is still subject to the approval of county health departments. According to KGO local news, some counties have progressed to later stages of reopening than others.
The state’s Catholic conference tweeted on Monday that the announcement was “welcome news,” asking Catholics to “continue to be careful and considerate” and to consult their diocese on reopening plans as “not all will be the same.”
The conference told CNA on May 14 that “the dioceses are working with all possible speed” to formulate their own plans and “working to match local conditions,” consulting with local authorities on how to safely reopen churches as the situation of the virus varied by county.
California remains in stage 2 of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D) four-stage reopening plan, where manufacturing, logistics, and some retail businesses are being allowed to reopen with some restrictions.
Churches were initially listed in stage 3 of the reopening plan, a later phase reserved for “higher-risk workplaces.”
The Thomas More Society had filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of a Pentecostal church in San Diego, saying that the state had violated First Amendment freedoms by forcing churches to remain closed while allowing some businesses to reopen during the pandemic. The church had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene in its case.
Federal guidance for the resumption of in-person religious services was published on Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), after President Trump called on state governors to allow churches to reopen “right now.”
Public Masses in Californian dioceses have been suspended since March. In recent days, some of the state’s bishops had said that plans were underway to eventually resume public Masses.
On May 12, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone announced that he and other bishops had consulted with local leaders about safely resuming public Masses. Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento said on May 20 that “My brother priests and I are preparing to resume the public celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass.”
On May 23, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said he was “working really hard” with state and local officials “to help them to understand what is the importance of the presence of God in our lives and how beautiful it is for us to come to church,” and that “I think the officials are, little by little, understanding better what is that urgent reality."