Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso has called for prayer and a small capacity of attendees at Mass, as a coronavirus case surge in the area has overwhelmed local hospitals.
“Our entire community ought to be very concerned about the unprecedented number of positive cases that were reported today. Clearly this virus, which is a mortal threat to many, is spreading unchecked at this time,” Seitz said in a video statement Oct. 22.
According to the AP, El Paso County health officials reported that as of Oct. 25 the county had 772 new coronavirus cases, one day after 1,216 new cases were reported. El Paso county now comprises 20% of the total new coronavirus cases in Texas.
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego said Oct. 25 that area hospitals had been “stretched to capacity” and issued a stay at home order for El Paso residents, with a curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Overwhelmed local hospitals have reported sending overflow patients to San Antonio area hospitals, and the governor has authorized the city’s civic center to be used for at least 50 additional hospital beds.
Seitz noted in his statement that, according to health officials, the main sources of the spread of the coronavirus have been stores and restaurants.
“If any good news came out of the mayor’s press conference today, it is that no cases are known to have originated in any of our Catholic churches,” Seitz said. “We believe our limits to the capacity that may gather in churches, plus the careful safety protocols that are in place will continue to ensure that people can be present for Mass without serious risk.” However, he noted, those who have chronic illnesses or are older and therefore in higher risk categories should “refrain at this time from attending.”
The bishop also recommended that pastors consider lowering the capacity of people they allow in their churches from 25% to 15% “if they choose, given the circumstances of their particular church.”
“I urge you to continue to pray for our entire community and especially for those who are ill at this time, and for our leaders. You are in my prayers as well. United in love for one another, we will come through these difficult times. God bless you,” Seitz concluded.
As the U.S. economy slowly reopened this summer, public Masses also resumed in most dioceses, following weeks to months of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Masses reopened with limited capacity and social distancing among other safety protocols, though nearly all dioceses have maintained the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days.
Bishops have grappled with the ever-changing status of coronavirus outbreaks, as the fall months have brought about spikes in cases in states such as Texas, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Montana.
Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Green Bay had initially lifted the dispensation from Sunday Mass attendance the weekend of Sept. 19-20, only to reinstate it two weeks later after cases spiked in the area.
On Oct. 19, the five bishops of Indiana announced that they were extending the dispensation from Sunday Mass until further notice. “While commending our pastors and pastoral life coordinators who have gone to great lengths to assure safe worship spaces in our churches, given the continued increase of COVID-19 cases in our state, the Indiana bishops hereby extend the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation beyond Nov.1, 2020, until further notice,” the bishops stated. “The Indiana bishops will continue to monitor the situation to determine when it might be advisable to modify or lift the dispensation,” they added.
Deacon Rob Lanciotti is a permanent deacon in Colorado who holds a doctoral degree in Microbiology. He was employed as a virologist for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention for 29 years.
In an Oct. 16 column for the Denver Catholic, Lanciotti said he encouraged Catholics in low-risk coronavirus categories to continue attending Mass, as it has shown to be a relatively safe activity, particularly given the safety protocols that most churches have put in place.
“Back in June as we began returning to Mass, I wrote from my perspective as a virologist with experience in public health that attending Mass for most people was a relatively low risk event.
The past several months have convinced me that this is still the case,” he wrote.
“Overall, the public health response and the media focus has been disproportionate to the threat,” he added. “Catholics should focus on the facts and not be manipulated by the press.”
Lanciotti noted that tests of the rate of infection, done in ten U.S. cities, have shown a low infection rate of 5%, with the exception of New York City at 20%.
Furthermore, he said, “there is a clear age and health relationship between COVID-19 infection and serious outcomes. Coronavirus infection is significantly less serious than annual flu for those in the 0-24 age category, about the same as annual flu for the 25-45 category, more serious than flu for those in the 45-64, and significantly more serious in those over 65; especially with pre-existing health conditions.”
People in lower risk categories, such as young people in good health, should therefore still feel safe attending Mass, he said.
Individuals and families, rather than the government, should be the ones trusted to make decisions about whether to attend church or other activities, he added, following the principle of subsidiarity, which “teaches us that those closest to the situation under consideration are best suited to make correct decisions.”
“For example, a healthy couple with young children should approach returning to Mass differently than an elderly couple with pre-existing health conditions, because the risk is objectively different for the two categories,” Lanciotti wrote.
However, he added, their risk assessment should also take into consideration their potential to infect higher risk populations.
“I can attest from my 30 years of experience in public health that government and public health officials detest subsidiarity, because they believe that it is their role to inform and guide your decisions. Unfortunately, they are unable to assess every situation and therefore generally overreact.”
“Without hesitation, I can say that for the majority of individuals, attending Mass at this time is a low-risk endeavor. Finally, as should be obvious to us, Mass attendance is of paramount importance for our salvation and therefore we should do all we reasonably can to participate in this great liturgy!”