CAPITAL REGION -- Effective immediately, houses of worship across upstate may reopen with up to 25 percent of their seating capacity, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Saturday.
Cuomo portrayed the expansion of access to churches, mosques and temples as an unexpected bit of good news, possible because COVID-19 cases in the state have continued to decline, even as upstate regions increase activity in Phase 2 of reopening.
"The reopening of the economy is a valve -- we said we were going to open the valve incrementally and then watch the metrics, and our metrics today are all very good, so we're going to open the valve more than we originally anticipated," Cuomo said.
Houses of worship still must follow social distancing guidelines, and Cuomo said full-capacity church services could still present a risk. "Twenty-five percent occupancy is not as easy as 100 percent occupancy, but 100 percent occupancy is mass gathering and you really can't do social distancing,” he said during his daily briefing at the state Capitol in Albany.
Depending on a sanctuary's capacity, 25 percent capacity could allow anywhere from a few dozen to 100 or more people to congregate.
Many churches switched to livestreaming services on social media after Cuomo used his emergency powers at the beginning of the pandemic in March to prohibit in person religious services. In May, Cuomo said in-person religious gatherings of up to 10 people would be allowed.
In the wake of the governor’s decision, Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany announced that any parishes that believe they can open while maintaining safety protocols may do so.
The dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass remains in place, he said, so those parishioners who are at risk or feel uncomfortable attending Mass are encouraged to remain at home and participate in livestreamed Masses.
“We know people are hungering to return to their churches and to the sacraments, and their priests and parish leaders are hungering to offer their spiritual food to the their people,” Scharfenberger said. “I am happy to announce that any churches that can do so safely may resume their celebration of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.”
Local Catholics are urged to check with their parishes before planning to attend a Mass, since each parish has its own procedures and protocols to maintain health and safety.
New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, which advocates for evangelical Christians, has objected to the church closures on religious freedom grounds, but called a limited re-opening a step forward.
"We know that pastors and churches can be trusted to take appropriate safety precautions," said the Rev. Jason McGuire of Rochester, the organization's executive director. "While we would prefer a more rapid rollback of the state’s temporary limits on religious gatherings, our organization appreciates that this positive step toward our churches has been taken.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that those involved in religious activities continue to wear masks and sit at least six feet apart, eliminate or reduce the use of shared objects like prayer books and hymnals, not used shared collection plates or baskets, and avoid congregate family-style meals connected with services.
Cuomo's announcement came the same day that Cuomo announced the state’s total number of COVID-19 deaths fell to 35 on Friday – a more than 95 percent reduction from the nearly 800 people per day dying in early April, when health care systems and funeral homes were being overwhelmed, particularly in New York City. Hospitalizations and deaths have fallen to their lowest levels since early in the outbreak.
One local death was among those: Saratoga County officials reported the death of a 62-year-old man from Saratoga Springs -- the county's 17th COVID-19 death since the pandemic began.
The governor, who has said repeatedly in recent days that the daily toll may never hit zero, portrayed the new number, down from 42 the day before, as “really good news.”
"When it gets this low, it's really a question of what they're attributing as the cause of death," he said. "In other words, you have people who are gravely ill who are going to die of something, and if they get the COVID virus, they attribute it to the COVID virus, but there is a number, when it gets down this low it's really a question of what that hospital certifies as the cause of death."
"Compared to where we were, this is a big sigh of relief," Cuomo said.
However, Cuomo also emphasized that risk remains, and said recent research showing the virus can survive up to three hours in the air has re-emphasized the important of wearing facial masks. “Don’t get cocky, don’t get arrogant, but all the arrows are pointed in the right directions," he said.
New York City, the national center of the pandemic, will enter Phase 1 of re-opening on Monday, with construction, curbside retail and non-essential manufacturing operations resuming.