Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn called New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's new restrictions on houses of worship "outrageous," "unfair," "disrespectful" and an attack on religious freedom.
On Oct. 6, Cuomo announced these new limits in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases in densely populated ZIP codes he has identified as "hot zones." He said the state has created three zones -- red, orange and yellow -- each with different restrictions, including on the size of congregations.
Some Catholic parishes in the Brooklyn Diocese are in the "red zone," meaning their churches are being forced to reduce capacity to a maximum of 10 people inside at one time, and some are in the "orange zone," where only 25 people at one time can attend Mass. A "yellow zone" designation means a 50% capacity.
The church restrictions came a day after Cuomo had a news conference ordering closures of public schools and Catholic and other nonpublic schools in certain ZIP codes that reportedly have double, or in some areas quadruple, the New York metro area's average COVID-19 infection rate of 1.72%.
In the Diocese of Brooklyn, for example, this means the closure of St. Athanasius Catholic Academy, Our Lady of Grace, St. Edmund Elementary School and Good Shepherd Catholic Academy.
In statement issued late Oct. 6 in response to Cuomo's new church restrictions, Bishop DiMarzio said parishioners' safety is "paramount" for the diocese, "but the religious freedom of our parishioners is being unjustly attacked. The facts show that Catholic churches in Brooklyn and Queens are safe and have followed all safety guidelines."
"Catholic Churches in Brooklyn and Queens have not had any COVID outbreaks or significant cases since reopening on July 5 to 25% capacity," the bishop said. "We fervently object to being told to further reduce capacity, because we have strictly adhered to COVID-19 protocols, and the safety measures have been working."
Bishop DiMarzio said it "is outrageous that after incurring great expense to implement all the safety protocols," these churches must reduce their congregation size.
Cuomo threatened to close houses of worship if they don't comply with the rules, and in particular he mentioned New York City's Orthodox Jewish community "where there have been mass gatherings going on."
"What did you think was going to happen?" he added. "If you do not agree to enforce the rules, then we'll close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that."
In his statement, Bishop DiMarzio emphasized that "our congregants have fully cooperated with the mask requirement and have been sitting 6 feet apart with a row in between. Catholic churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn are regularly sanitized, and hand sanitizers are set up at all entrances."
Joseph Esposito, a former New York City Office of Emergency Management commissioner, "guided us on our reopening plans and the subsequent safe reopening of our churches," Bishop DiMarzio said.
"To think that some of our churches have the capacity to hold a thousand people for Mass, a capacity range of 10 to 25 people is disrespectful to Catholics and to the clergy who all have followed the rules and, as such, have prevented a spike in COVID cases within the confines of the hot zones," he added.
In response to the school closures, the Brooklyn Diocese Oct. 5 implored Cuomo "to immediately reverse his decision and allow four schools that have been operating safely for weeks, within the COVID hot spot ZIP codes, to continue in-person learning."
A diocesan spokesperson for the diocese told Catholic News Service Oct. 6 the diocese had only learned of the closures at Cuomo's news conference the day before.
"This decision by the governor clearly fails to take into account the positive progress our diocesan school system has made so far this school year," said Tom Chadzutko, Brooklyn's diocesan school superintendent.
The diocese said that among its four schools in the targeted ZIP codes, enrollment totals 1,070 students, "and there has only been one confirmed COVID case."
"These statistics prove that the diocesan COVID-19 safety policies are effectively protecting our students and teachers," it said.
The New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops, called Cuomo's school closure order "a broad-brush approach that penalizes all schools, children and families needlessly."
"We strongly urge that any action taken addresses actual problem schools where there is a sustained high rate of infection," the conference said in an Oct. 5 statement issued on behalf of the New York Archdiocese and the Brooklyn Diocese.