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Masses following CDC health guidelines ‘extremely safe’ to attend, expert says…

Dr. Timothy P. Flanigan, a Catholic deacon and professor at Brown University, emphasized the safety of attending Masses that follow CDC health guidelines. (CNS photo/courtesy Rhode Island Catholic) 

Mar. 8, 2021
Nicholas Wolfram Smith

With parishes across California resuming their liturgical lives, Massgoers should be reassured about the level of risk going to church entails. 

“It is extremely safe to attend Mass indoors following common sense precautions as recommended by the CDC,” Dr. Timothy Flanigan said. 

Flanigan, professor of medicine and of health services, policy and practice at Brown University, member of the university’s Division of Infectious Diseases and a Catholic deacon, helped author guidelines published by the Thomistic Institute on safely celebrating Mass during the pandemic. 

Following the ‘3 W’s’: “Wear a mask, wash your hands, watch your distance from others,” is key for public safety, as well as heeding CDC recommendations for worship spaces that include good ventilation, staying home when sick and having capacity limits. 

With hundreds of thousands of Masses being celebrated since parts of the country began reopening, “There have been no clusters of cases reported that have been linked to church attendance where these commonsense precautions have been followed,” he said.  

A series of cases from Seattle, where unknowingly infected individuals who later reported testing positive attended Masses and other services that were following COVID safety practices, show the effectiveness of following the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines. In each case, no outbreak of the disease was associated with the individual’s attendance. 

“This encouraging news should inspire confidence that the guidelines in place — based on CDC recommendations — are working to decrease COVID-19 transmission,” Flanigan wrote in an Aug. 19 article in Real Clear Science. “While nothing during a pandemic is risk-free, these guidelines mean that Catholics (and public officials) may be confident that it’s reasonably safe to come to church for Mass and the sacraments.”

Flanigan also said there was no data indicating the length of Mass by itself as a significant risk factor for COVID transmission. 

“People should worship the way it’s best to worship. When individuals follow the 3 W’s, we have not seen any outbreaks related to longer services,” he said. 

On Feb. 5, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down California’s ban on indoor worship. In a Feb. 8 letter to priests, Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone welcomed the decision, but stressed the importance of celebrating Mass safely and noted the ruling “does not change the science.” Holding Mass outdoors adds “an additional safety precaution for those gathered,” he said, and indoor liturgies must strictly follow the archdiocese’s safety protocols. 

“The four principal practices remain in place: social distancing, masks, sanitation, and ventilation,” he said. 

The archbishop reminded priests his dispensation from the Sunday Mass obligation remains in place and said parishioners who are sick should not attend Mass, while those who are elderly or at high risk from COVID may “in good conscience” remain home.  

Flanigan said California’s COVID-19 outlook is very encouraging, as CDC data shows cases have decreased about 90% since the state saw record numbers of positive tests in December and January. Those two months saw seven-day moving averages of reported cases peak around 43,000, compared to about 4,000 in the first week of March. 

With case rates dropping and the vaccination campaign rapidly progressing — about 18% of California’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine — Flanigan said people should look forward to the phased lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. 

“The COVID vaccine has been an enormous success and has provided levels of protection that have been much higher than any of us predicted. There is real cause for optimism and rejoicing,” he said. 

Going forward, Flanigan said one of the top priorities for churches will be addressing the effects of the lockdown, which has led to “unprecedented” isolation, extracted a significant toll on physical, mental and spiritual health, and stressed the social fabric of local communities.

“In our churches we’ll need to go out and visit, whether it’s spiritual support to pray together, bringing Jesus in the Eucharist, or inviting people to come back to Mass so they can worship together. We’re really going to be called to do this two by two, just like Jesus sent out the disciples in the Gospel,” he said. 

On Jan. 25, Gov. Gavin Newsom ended the state’s stay-at-home orders, returning counties to a 4 tier system based on new daily cases, rate of positive tests and ICU capacity. Purple counties, indicating widespread COVID-19 with seven or more new daily cases per 100,000 residents or an 8% positive testing rate, have the most restrictions, while yellow counties, with fewer than one new case per 100,000 or a positive test rate below 2%, will have the fewest limitations. 

All counties in the archdiocese are currently in the red tier, with churches limited to 25% of building capacity. Movie theaters and restaurants are also limited to 25% of their capacity, and retail locations and malls are open to 50% of capacity. 

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