For the first time in months, people of faith in Manitoba will be able to return to their places of worship this weekend as restrictions due to COVID-19 are gradually loosened.
As part of the second phase of Manitoba’s pandemic reopening plan, the limit on public gatherings that’s been in place since March — including gatherings in places of worship — was expanded from 10 to 25 indoors, effective this week.
While faith leaders are approaching how and when they will reopen differently, most agree that being apart for so long without praying together in-person is contrary to their nature and painful.
While some say they’re going to wait to reopen their doors, more than 80 churches in the Catholic diocese of St. Boniface say they will be offering public masses this weekend that are limited to a maximum of 25 people, including the priest.
Up until this weekend, some parishes, such as Holy Cross on Dubuc Street, were holding masses with 10 people. Pews were marked with green tape to ensure physical distancing, and hand-sanitizing stations were installed.
Daniel Bahuaud, communications co-ordinator for the diocese of St. Boniface, says while regular mass times will resume, there must be enough time between each celebration to properly disinfect pews and door handles to make sure the next group of parishioners coming in are safe.
He said he is hearing from Catholics who are overjoyed at finally being able to receive the sacrament of communion this weekend.
“As Catholics, this is the source and summit of our community prayer life and our personal prayer life,” said Bahuaud.
But giving communion will now involve strict protocols.
“The priest will disinfect his hands, people will be lined up in one file, respecting distancing. The priest will extend his arm out as far as possible, dropping the host into the person’s cupped hands,” said Bahuaud.
There will be other safety protocols in place too, said Bahuaud.
“It means we have one entrance to the church. A greeter makes sure the number is capped, and that people are distancing and sanitizing. Anyone who seems symptomatic would not be able to attend.”
At Holy Cross, parishioners are calling in to get their name on a list to attend mass. Once the list is full, a new one is started for the next mass.
“Call your local office to make sure you are on the list. We don’t want people to show up and be disappointed because they can’t get in,” said Bahuaud.
It’s the limit of 25 people that is a sticking point for some other places of worship that have decided not to open this weekend.
Limit unfair, says synagogue
The Congregation of Shaarey Zedek Synagogue on Wellington Crescent is grappling with how to restrict numbers if more than 25 people want to attend services.
“Our normal weekend service, our Shabbat service, we would get anywhere between 100 and 150 people attending,” said executive director Ian Staniloff. “So to limit to 25 if we were able to open would be unfair.”
The synagogue doesn’t plan to resume in-person services until it can allow more people to attend.
“We don’t want to exclude people. We feel strongly about allowing anybody who wants to attend within a reasonable number, and 25 just doesn’t do it for us,” said Staniloff.
After discussions with the two rabbis, Staniloff says the congregation is comfortable in continuing with what it has been doing during the pandemic — broadcasting two services every day online, as well as the larger Saturday morning service, and live-streaming funerals.
“It’s not as if we are not reaching out and connecting with our congregants. We are, very much so. And the numbers are evident in our live-streaming data,” said Staniloff.
In fact, Staniloff says more people are connecting with online services now than attended in-person before the pandemic.
“We crave each other. We crave being connected. Yes, we are missing the in-person, but we are connecting over the phone, on social media,” he said.
“We will all get through this. Goodness will prevail. This will bring us closer to each other.”
Delayed opening at mosque
The executive director of the Winnipeg Central Mosque on Ellice Avenue also finds the 25-person limit problematic.
“What if you have 25 to 100 lined up at the door? Is it a private club for only 25?” said Idris Knapp. “It just doesn’t feel right.”
He said the mosque is delaying opening until at least mid-June, until it can sort out other logistical issues.
“How do we wash our feet and hands before prayer time?” Knapp wonders.
“If you are coming from home, you can do it there. But what if you are a cab driver or someone else coming from work? How do we disinfect the carpet after people pray with their face and head on the ground? Do we restrict prayer times?”
He’s also not convinced people will adhere to physical distancing after not seeing each other for months.
“People want to hug and shake hands. And based on what I have seen in parks and shops, only a few were wearing masks and they were not distancing.”
He says faith communities are willing to wait a little longer to make sure everyone is safe before opening up.
‘We just want to take it slow’
North Kildonan Mennonite Brethren on Gateway Road has a congregation of over 600. Only allowing 25 in doesn’t feel right and it’s not practical, according to Pastor Victor Neufeld. It won’t be opening this weekend either.
“We know the risks. We just want to take it slow. People miss gathering and we want to have them here. Until then, we will continue with online pre-recorded services. We are all in this together,” said Neufeld.
Church of the Rock on Buffalo Place also plans to wait until the cap expands. One of the pastors at the church, which regularly saw nearly 2,000 people attend weekend services pre-pandemic, says only allowing 25 people in a building that seats 1,900 doesn’t make sense.
Many more could fit in while following distancing rules, the church argues.
But for now, it will also remain closed, while continuing to live stream services.
CBC contacted the province to find out when churches and places of worship will be bumped up to at least half capacity, or one person every 10 square metres — something faith leaders note is already allowed in retail businesses, and will be allowed as of Monday for restaurants.
In a written statement, a spokesperson for the province said places of worship should observe rules in place, like not allowing choirs or musical theatre activities, due to a higher risk of transmission through singing compared to speaking.
Further guidance for places of worship is being developed, the spokesperson said.
For now, “we don’t know when we will open,” said Staniloff.
“Maybe we will be able to return to some kind of normalcy in the summer. It will be interesting to see what our high holy days will look like this fall.”
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