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Society

California Lays out Pandemic Rules for Church Reopenings

LOS ANGELES — Rabbi Shalom Rubanowitz looks forward to reopening his synagogue doors — if his congregation can balance the laws of God and California during the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Monday, the state released a framework that will permit counties to allow in-person worship services. They include limiting worshipers to 100 or less, taking everyone's temperature, limiting singing and group recitations and not sharing prayer books or other items.

The Orthodox congregation of Shul on the Beach in Los Angeles County's Venice Beach will follow the guidelines, consulting with rabbinical authorities who place a high importance on preservation of life, Rubanowitz said.

"We can do it, it's just a question of how," he said, noting that Orthodox believers are barred from using technology or carrying many personal items on the Sabbath. 

The path of reopening provides "a great deal of hope," he added. "That's what people need."

Houses of worship are the latest focus as the state eases mid-March stay-at-home orders that shut down all but essential services and kept 40 million Californians at home to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Social distancing precautions are cited for reducing rates of hospitalizations and deaths and most of California's 58 counties are deep into phase two of Gov. Gavin Newsom's four-stage plan to restart the battered economy. The state on Monday cleared the way for in-store shopping to resume statewide with social distancing restrictions, although counties get to decide whether to permit it.

Individual counties also will decide whether to allow the reopening of in-person services for churches, mosques, synagogues and other religious institutions. In-person religious services are relegated to phase three, which Newsom had said could be weeks away. 

But they could come much sooner under the guidelines. Counties that are having success controlling the virus are likely to move quickly. Others with outbreaks — such as Los Angeles County, which has about 60% of California's roughly 3,800 deaths — may choose to delay. 

Orange County supervisors may consider a resolution being introduced Tuesday to reopen houses of worship next weekend under federal and state health guidelines.

Worshippers who are allowed to return will find some jarring changes. The state guidelines limit gatherings to 25% of building capacity or 100 people, whichever is lower. Choirs aren't recommended. Neither are shaking hands or hugging. Worshipers are urged to wear masks, avoid sharing prayer books or prayer rugs, keep their distance in pews and skip the collection plate. Large gatherings such as for concerts, weddings and funerals should be avoided.

The guidelines say even with physical distancing, in-person worship carries a higher risk of transmitting the virus and increasing the numbers of hospitalizations and deaths and recommend houses of worship shorten services. 

Each county will have to adopt rules for services to resume within their jurisdictions and then the guidelines will be reviewed by state health officials after 21 days. 

Some church leaders aren't eager to reopen. The Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and head of the local NAACP chapter, led a protest Monday against reopening.

"We are not going to be rushing back to church," he said by phone, noting that many leaders of his denomination have been sickened or died nationwide. Freedom of religion is "not the freedom to kill folks, not the freedom to put people in harm's way. That's insane," he said.

But a few churches have defiantly reopened their doors already, a handful have sued the governor, and several thousand were threatening to ignore his orders and reopen for Pentecost on May 31.

Cross Culture Christian Center, a Lodi church that defied the governor and then sued him, said the guidelines were welcome but didn't change anything.

"Our church and places of worship across California have suffered greatly because our leaders chose to marginalize and criminalize faith-based gatherings," Pastor Jon Duncan said in a statement. "If we are to remain free, we must never allow this to happen again." 

Some places of worship around the country opened over the weekend after President Donald Trump declared them essential and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for reopening faith organizations. 

But some of the largest religious institutions in California are taking a more cautious approach.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange announced last week that it is phasing in public Masses beginning June 14, starting with restricted numbers of worshipers. At first, choirs will be banned, fonts won't contain holy water and parishioners won't perform rituals where they must touch each other.

"We know that God is with us, but at the same time we have to be careful and make sure that we protect each other in this challenging time," Bishop Kevin Vann said Friday.

Two church services that already were held without authorization have been sources of outbreaks; one in Mendocino County and the other in Butte County.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. As of Monday, California had at least 94,558 confirmed cases of COVID-19, more than 3,000 hospitalizations and 3,795 deaths.

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