Catholic churches in Maine will start limiting attendance at indoor services in accordance with state coronavirus guidance, but complain that they have been left out of decisions about the pandemic response.
Starting no later than Monday, Catholic churches around Maine will temporarily allow a maximum of 50 people in attendance for indoor daily and Sunday Masses, according to a news release Wednesday from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland. The church says it has about 250,000 members in Maine.
Cases of coronavirus are surging in Maine. The state’s seven-day average of new cases rose to 165 on Tuesday, more than five times what it was one month ago and up from about 102 cases a week earlier. Another 142 cases and two deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the state’s death toll to 158 since the pandemic began.
In response to the rising cases, Gov. Janet Mills announced last week that limits on indoor gatherings would return to 50 people regardless of capacity. The administration had previously said indoor gatherings were limited to 50 percent of permitted capacity or 100 people, whichever was lower.
The Catholic diocese, in its release Wednesday, noted that no cases of COVID-19 have stemmed from a Mass at a Catholic church since the start of the pandemic. However, cases and outbreaks have been linked to services at other churches around the state, including at least 32 cases at a Waldo County Pentecostal church and affiliated school last month and an August outbreak of at least 10 members of the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford.
The Sanford church’s pastor, Todd Bell, officiated at a Millinocket wedding in August that CDC officials say has been linked to more than 100 cases of people contracting COVID-19.
Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization of seven member denominations, said while those outbreaks have attracted widespread attention, most mainline Protestant and Catholic churches have been adhering to state guidance. The council has not issued any public statements about the lower gathering size limits, but Field said they “100%” support the limit. “We recognize that’s how we’re going to flatten the curve and get ahead of the surge,” Field said.
The Catholic diocese said adherence to state and diocesan protocols have led to the successful operation of 141 Catholic churches in Maine during the pandemic. Those protocols include mandatory masks for attendees, pew seating arrangements to separate individuals and families and proper sanitization after each Mass. There are also no gatherings allowed at churches other than Masses.
Dave Guthro, communications director for the diocese, said in an email Wednesday the diocese is committed to ensuring the safety and well-being of parishioners and the wider community, but is concerned the latest state guidance doesn’t take into account the vast differences between Maine churches, some of which he said can safely accommodate more people.
Recently, Guthro said the diocese was dismayed to hear the comparison made between churches and eating indoors at a restaurant. “At all Maine Catholic churches, all attendees wear masks, social distancing is clearly enforced and parishioners spend an average of less than an hour indoors,” he said. “In restaurants, diners take their masks off while seated at tables, the tables are not uniformly separated and meals traditionally take well over an hour.”
The diocese also said it was promised early in the pandemic it would have an open line of communication with the state and the state would work with them in making assessments about church sizes for Masses, but said that hasn’t been happening.
“Messages and questions sent to Governor Mills from Bishop (Robert) Deeley have not received direct answers or responses from the governor in recent months,” Guthro said. “The diocese, which oversees around 250,000 Maine Catholics, would just like the opportunity to collaborate with the state and present these types of differences and exceptions to the state in a more collegial manner, which hasn’t been the case in recent months.”
Lindsay Crete, a spokeswoman for Mills, said, however, that the administration has been engaging with the religious community throughout the pandemic and has had conversations with faith leaders across the state.
Early in the pandemic, Crete said the administration worked with religious leaders to find creative ways for Maine people to be able to worship, such as drive-in and outdoor services.
Recently, Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew and Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Nirav Shah held a conference call with faith leaders throughout the state to discuss ways to protect worshippers from the spread of COVID-19 amid church-related outbreaks.
“The Governor, who has attended services at her own church virtually during the pandemic, understands the important role of faith in peoples’ lives,” Crete said in an email. “The virus does not target one religion or one denomination but is spread through gatherings of all sorts. Community spread is now more prevalent and more dangerous than ever before.
“The administration, based on the best science and medical advice, will continue to work with Maine’s faith leaders to protect the right to worship and at the same time protect parishioners, their families and communities and all Maine people against this deadly virus.”
Guthro said there is no specific end date for when the diocese will change attendance capacity, but it will be guided by science.
In the meantime, many Catholic and Protestant churches are livestreaming services so members can participate from home. Field said there are also other ways for people to share their faith and worship together safely, including recording services or phone trees and letter writing.
“I don’t want to discount the pain and frustration and loss, but it’s important not to lose sight of the fact these restrictions and this pandemic are creating new growth and that’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “The church is still being the church.”