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EDITORIAL: Reopening churches, how soon is too soon?

EDITORIAL: Reopening churches, how soon is too soon?

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford is planning to reopen its parishes to the public — for weekday Masses only — beginning on Monday, June 8. This will mean the partial reopening of its more than 120 parishes in Hartford, New Haven and Litchfield counties. Church officials said a date for resuming Sunday services has not been determined.

Some houses of worship in Massachusetts started welcoming people back for services last weekend, after getting permission to reopen their doors under that state’s guidelines.

Other states, and other denominations, are grappling with the same basic questions: When is it safe to reopen houses of worship to in-person services? And under what new rules and conditions?

Last week, President Donald Trump called on governors “to allow our churches and places of worship to open right now … The people are demanding to go to church and synagogue and to their mosque.”

Indeed, many people are. In Connecticut they have also asked, or at least wondered, why the state considers such things as financial services, gun shops, landscapers and medical marijuana dispensaries “essential,” but not religious gatherings of a normal size. As things stand, Gov. Ned Lamont’s executive order limits “religious, spiritual, and worship gatherings” to not more than 49 people, with proper distancing measures and face coverings required in most cases. This order remains in effect until June 20, unless he changes it.

The problem, of course, is obvious: In a packed church, maintaining social distancing would be impossible. That’s why, in Massachusetts, churches were told to limit the congregation to 40 percent of the building’s capacity. But sharing hymnals, prayer books and offering plates would be perfect ways to transmit a virus, as would taking communion.

On the other hand, during this coronavirus shutdown we have been living with government rules that put the governors on thin constitutional ice regarding our religious freedoms. Generally speaking, houses of worship are not even taxed in this country, and yet they’ve been shut down for months by executive order.

Most of us have never seen such a situation before, and we hope we shall never see it again. For now, we are relying on the governor to end this ban as soon as it is safe to do so.