Prior to Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement Saturday afternoon that all Minnesota houses of worship were allowed to open up at 25% capacity starting this Wednesday, one Duluth pastor said his church was not ready to go that route.
Despite strongly worded letters sent by church leaders days earlier to Walz and subsequent talks that resulted in a revised policy Saturday, Mount Olive Lutheran Church abided by the previously state-mandated 10-person gathering limit at its Sunday services.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rev. Robert Franck said Saturday his church was not ready to follow guidelines recommended by Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod leaders and Catholic bishops that sought to open churches up to one-third capacity starting Tuesday.
“We’re not comfortable violating (the governor’s) guideline at this point,” Franck said by phone before the governor’s announcement. “Even with the current situation, we’d be uncomfortable going with a third of our seating capacity.”
Instead, Mount Olive allowed 10 people in the sanctuary and 10 more in a separate room for each of the two Sunday services. Audio from the service was broadcast to the parking lot area for those not allowed inside.
Franck said the church normally has 80 worshipers on an average Sunday and the sanctuary can hold up to three times that amount. Sixty worshipers will be accepted into the sanctuary next Sunday, Franck said, following new state guidelines allowing occupancy at up to 25% of the capacity as determined by the fire marshal.
“It seems like new things come out each day so it’s hard to predict what the future will hold,” he said. “It is frustrating that the governor has no timeline for when the restrictions are being lifted, and it seems like his guidelines aren’t applied equally to churches and to other places like retail stores, bars and restaurants. That’s of some concern.”
Walz’s recent executive order allows for the reopening of malls and other retail stores to open their doors at 50% capacity starting June 1.
That caused consternation among state faith leaders.
Seven members of the Catholic Bishops of Minnesota, including Rev. James Bissonette, the diocesan administrator of the Diocese of Duluth, sent a letter mid-week to Walz — as did the Missouri Synod — urging his administration to reconsider its position toward churches.
Then President Donald Trump on Friday called on all governors to open places of worship immediately.
"Some governors have deemed liquor stores and abortion clinics as essential but have left out churches and other houses of worship," Trump said at a news conference. "It's not right, so I'm correcting this injustice."
A subsequent meeting between church leaders and Walz produced Saturday’s agreement.
“We are grateful that Governor Walz entered into respectful dialogue with us, recognized the spiritual needs of our faithful, and agreed that it is possible to resume worship services safely and responsibly,” Archbishop Bernard Hebda, of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said in a statement.
Walz also released a statement in which he said: “I have had many meaningful conversations with faith leaders over the last few weeks. From a personal and public health perspective, the decision around places of worship has been a challenging one since the beginning of the pandemic. We know large gatherings of people raise the risk of spreading COVID-19. We also know worship is an essential part of many Minnesotans’ lives, including mine.”
Along with suspending communion and fellowship programs when voluntarily shuttering their doors in March, church leaders became increasingly worried about the mental health of their congregations.
National figures show a surge in the number of calls to suicide hotlines, while domestic abuse has seen an uptick worldwide.
“These lockdowns and restrictions around the country are playing havoc with people’s mental health as well,” Franck said. “The church, being able to provide some hope and love and care, is an important piece of support for people.”
Meanwhile, a Catholic church in Piedmont Heights is postponing its plans for Mass until further notice after a pastor, Fr. Ryan Moravitz, was exposed to COVID-19. Moravitz said in an email to parishioners Sunday that he has no symptoms, but is self-quarantining as he awaits test results. He said he has called everyone he has had direct contact with since being exposed.
In Wisconsin, where the state Supreme Court recently struck down Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer-at Home policy as unconstitutional, the Diocese of Superior opened its parishes Sunday with several protocols in place.
In a letter sent to congregants Wednesday, Bishop James Powers said no more than nine people are allowed in the church proper at any time, while all parishioners are encouraged to wear masks, use hand sanitizer and maintain a 6-foot distance between all non-family members.
“I know this plan is not the return to our public celebrations of the Holy Mass that we all want. I beg your patience as we responsibly ease our way back,” Powers said in a release.
Clint Austin and Barrett Chase of the News Tribune contributed to this report.
This story was updated at 6:12 p.m. May 24 with additional information from St. Lawrence Church. It was originally posted at 12:39 p.m. May 24.