COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 27, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – During the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in the state of Ohio are considered an essential business and allowed to stay open. “Religious facilities, entities and groups and religious gatherings, including weddings and funerals,” are listed by the state as “essential businesses and operations” which may stay open.
The order of the Ohio Department of Health was issued on March 22, taking effect on March 24, and scheduled to last until April 6.
The bishops within the state of Ohio, organized as the Catholic Conference of Ohio, had already decided on March 16 to cancel all public Masses and liturgies, “at least through the celebrations of Holy Week and Easter.”
While all businesses and operations deemed by the state of Ohio to be “non-essential” were ordered to stop, a fairly lengthy list of exceptions included religious entities. Another exception were organizations providing charitable and social services.
Even though “religious gatherings” are explicitly permitted by the order of the Ohio Department of Health, the requirements of social distancing would still have to be practiced.
This includes “maintaining at least six-foot social distancing from other individuals, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitizer, covering coughs or sneezes (into the sleeve or elbow, not hands), regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and not shaking hands.”
All of these measures could be observed in a Catholic environment, but the public may only leave the house for essential activities. The list of essential activities includes only “health and safety,” obtaining “necessary supplies and services,” “outdoor activity,” “certain types of work,” related to the list of essential businesses and operations, and “to take care of others.”
The order later clarifies that “essential travel” is defined as any travel “related to the provision of or access to Essential Activities, Essential Governmental Functions, Essential Businesses and Operations, or Minimum Basic Operations.”
Legally, public Masses would not be a problem. Nevertheless, the bishops of Ohio never revoked their decision to cancel all public Masses.
“The bishops of Ohio dispense the Catholic faithful who reside in their respective dioceses and all other Catholics currently in Ohio from the obligation of attending Sunday Mass through Easter Sunday,” they wrote instead on March 16.
In their statement, the bishops claim that the decision was made “after consultation with the governor and health officials,” convincing the bishops “that this is the most prudent and necessary action.” Given the more recent order of the Ohio government, this might no longer be the case.
“This is a step that I wish we did not feel compelled to take,” said Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 17. “I realize it is yet another source of suffering in an already trying time. However, given the grave health risks we are currently facing, especially with regard to public gatherings, I believe it is a necessary step in the interest of the common good that will help to curb the spread of this virus.”
Cardinal Raymond Burke had a different emphasis in a statement released on March 21.
“We can provide more opportunities for the Holy Mass and devotions at which a number of faithful can participate without violating necessary precautions against the spread of contagion,” he wrote. “Many of our churches and chapels are very large. They permit a group of the faithful to gather for prayer and worship without violating the requirements of ‘social distance.’”
The former Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court within the Catholic Church, offered some practical advice, as well, stressing the role of the laity.
“If a church or chapel does not have a sufficiently large staff to be able to disinfect regularly the pews and other surfaces, I have no doubt that the faithful, in gratitude for the gifts of the Holy Eucharist, Confession, and of public devotion, will gladly assist,” he said.