California limits church capacity to 25% for reopening, adds other restrictions

The state of California released new coronavirus health guidance for religious serviceson Monday, saying houses of worship must limit total attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity and stop passing around offering plates, in addition to taking other precautions.

The 13-page document, released by the California Department of Public Health and Cal/OSHA, does not obligate churches, mosques, temples and other houses of worship to resume in-person activity, officials said. 

In fact, state health authorities strongly recommend that places of worship “continue to facilitate remote services and other related activities for those who are vulnerable to COVID19 including older adults and those with co-morbidities.”

California’s stay-at-home order, which is credited with slowing the spread of the coronavirus, has upended the economy and changed the lives of millions. But it also has caused special pain for people of faith, who no longer can worship in person as churches and other religious institutions have been closed.

The religious aspect of the shutdown has been much debated, though the vast majority of houses of worship have willingly complied with the rules to keep their members safe. Still, some churches have filed lawsuits, and a few have defied the order.

The state guidance not only covers religious services, but also the day-to-day operations of religious organizations that employ workers or enlist the service of volunteers. The effect of the recommendations, however, will be most noticeable during religious ceremonies.

Among other things, congregants must be screened for fever or other symptoms of illness and are asked to use hand sanitizer and wear face coverings. Overall attendance will be limited to just 25% of building capacity for the first three weeks of services. Also, the state has barred parishioners from passing offering plates or other items.

Houses of worship also have been told to discourage the sharing of items including prayer books, cushions and rugs. Similarly, staff, visitors and congregants are discouraged from singing, holding potluck meals and shaking hands and hugging.

High-traffic areas, such as chapels and libraries, must be thoroughly cleaned, while common surfaces such as pulpits, pews, altars and donation boxes must be disinfected frequently.

The occupancy limit for services will remain in place for the first 21 days after a county health department has approved the resumption of religious services and cultural ceremonies within their jurisdiction, the guidance says.

After 21 days, the California Department of Public Health, in consultation with county health officials, will review and assess the effect of the imposed limits and provide further direction as part of a phased-in restoration of activities in places of worship.

Workers and volunteers for religious organizations must also wear masks “at all facilities, in offices, when making home visits as part of providing services, or in a vehicle during work-related travel with others,” the guidance said.

In a separate guidance released Monday, the state says that, subject to approval by county public health departments, all retail stores can reopen for in-store shopping under previously issued guidelines. 

The existing guidance for retailers, which previously applied just to those counties approved for wider reopening, now applies statewide. Retail can open for in-store shopping throughout California. Retail does not include personal services such as hair salons, nail salons and barbershops.

The rules on churches came amid growing pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to address their reopening.

On Friday, President Trump made an unexpected appearance in the White House briefing room to declare that he was designating churches as “essential” businesses so they could immediately reopen.

Trump previously said he would leave decisions about easing public health guidance to states but often criticized decisions by individual governors. The president has now threatened that he will “override” states that don’t heed his directive. It was not clear what authority he was referring to.

On Friday night, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld Newsom’s ban on in-person church services.

The South Bay United Pentecostal Church in San Diego could not reopen immediately, the two judges in the majority wrote in their order, because in this case “constitutional standards that would normally govern our review of a Free Exercise claim should not be applied.”

“We’re dealing here with a highly contagious and often fatal disease for which there presently is no known cure. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, if a ‘[c]ourt does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact,’” they wrote.

The decision came the same week more than 1,200 pastors vowed to hold in-person services on May 31, Pentecost Sunday.

Nine cases of COVID-19, the infection caused by the coronavirus, are now linked to the May 10 service held by the Assembly of God in the Mendocino County city of Redwood Valley. The service was livestreamed to congregants and included singing, county public health officials said Friday.

In Butte County, two coronavirus cases are now believed to be linked to a May 10 church service that was held despite county rules and drew more than 180 attendees, officials said.

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