As Philadelphia waded into the “yellow” phase of recovery with a slow reopening day for many retailers, Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez said Friday that Catholic churches in the five-county Archdiocese of Philadelphia would resume in-person Masses this weekend, despite city orders restricting indoor gatherings.
Pérez and other church leaders said those Masses will look far different than they did three months ago: Church capacity will be cut in half, congregants over age 2 will be required to wear masks, and families will be asked to keep at least a six-foot distance from other households. Singing “should be kept to a minimum” and priests will not ask congregants to offer each other the Sign of Peace, with its usual handshaking.
“Gov. [Tom] Wolf has provided for an exception for the gathering of religious services, because religious services are considered essential, like some other businesses, and so the occupancy is 50%. So it is not in any way a contradiction to the directives given by the mayor,” said the Rev. G. Dennis Gill, director of the Archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship.
Parishes will continue to livestream services and maintain the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass in person, Pérez said.
Last week, Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley expressed concern about infection risks from religious gatherings during the yellow phase, but added the city would not shut down services that are allowed under state guidelines.
The city’s guidelines are stricter because Philadelphia is so densely populated, officials have said.
Philadelphia reported 126 new COVID-19 cases and 17 deaths Friday. There were a total of 443 new cases and 69 deaths in Pennsylvania as of June 5; New Jersey saw 864 new cases and 79 deaths.
John Zurlo, division director of infectious disease at Jefferson Health, said he “has some concerns” about churches resuming indoor services because the virus is known to spread more easily indoors.
“It has nothing to do with churches,” Zurlo said. “It’s just a challenge we have to be careful about, whether it’s a church or any other indoor setting."
Some churches are finding creative ways to be together yet distanced. The Salt and Light ministry in Southwest Philadelphia planned to hold a drive-up service on Sunday, according to its Facebook page.
But in Camden County, Solid Rock Baptist Church filed a lawsuit in federal court this week over New Jersey’s order limiting indoor church attendance to no more than 10 people.
“Sadly, we are forced to bring this lawsuit because Gov. [Phil] Murphy and his leadership team have infringed upon our First Amendment rights to freely exercise our religion according to the Bible and our conscience,” Pastors Charles Clark Jr. and Charles Clark III said in a statement.
Friday was the long-awaited day when businesses could reopen provided they followed certain safety guidelines, but many in the city and its suburbs remained shuttered.
On West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street corridor, recently devastated during protests, clothing stores and coffee shops were closed, many with signs reading “Black owned" in seeming efforts to dissuade looters.
In King of Prussia’s Town Center, upscale chains like REI and Nordstrom weren’t reopening either.
And on South Street, shops selling books and yarn were dark.
In April, small business owners expressed concern about opening their stores, saying they couldn’t go back to normal until customers feel comfortable leaving their homes. Advocates said the government needed to do more to protect retail workers.
But all that was before the death of George Floyd beneath the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, and the ensuing demonstrations demanding equity and justice.
“There are much more important things happening,” said Jeffrey Hyman, general manager at the Wine Dive on South Street. “There are people in danger. There are people hurting. We need to focus on that first.”
Hyman, 30, said his team had been preparing for the transition to the yellow phase and just started letting customers back into the small shop after offering only curbside pickup for the last three weeks.
He kept the door open to beckon customers with two chalkboards outside. One detailed the rules — only three people allowed at a time and masks required. The other stated: Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, officials are anticipating another weekend of protests will bring thousands of people into the city’s streets.
The possibility that such crowds — as well as police detainment tactics that defy social distancing — could lead to an uptick in COVID-19 cases had some medical experts wondering if Philly should have stayed in the “red” zone.
Zurlo, of Jefferson, said he is “nervous” about that possibility, but pleased that many demonstrators have been seen wearing masks.
Wolf on Friday said 12 more Pennsylvania counties — none in the Philadelphia region — will move into the green phase next Friday. People will still need to wear masks in public places, but businesses will have fewer restrictions.
Asked what comes after the green phase, Health Secretary Rachel Levine said restrictions would keep being reduced as long as case rates continue to trend down.
But limits on visits to long-term-care facilities should remain in place for at least 28 days after a county enters the “green” phase, state officials announced Friday.
Because many residents of nursing homes and personal care facilities live in close quarters, need hands-on care and have significant risk factors, the virus has raced through many such facilities, causing disproportionate levels of serious illness and death.
“We need to continue this mitigation effort to make sure that our most vulnerable individuals remain safe,” Levine said in a news release.
Since March, facilities have been told not to allow families or friends to visit residents in person. Friday’s announcement, noting the emotional burdens isolation has caused, said it is OK for people to see each other through windows or glass doors.
Philadelphia prisons also entered the yellow phase of reopening on Friday, which means gradually decreasing restrictions and allowing individuals, except those in isolation or quarantine, to spend more time out of their cells.
A Philadelphia City Council committee advanced five bills on Friday that would offer relief for renters affected by COVID-19, including payment agreements with landlords and an eviction diversion program. They will now go to the full Council for a final vote. The committee also voted down a bill that would have banned rent increases for six months for tenants affected by economic impact of the pandemic.
SEPTA will require riders to wear face coverings beginning Monday.
In New Jersey, Murphy on Friday detailed plans for the state’s Motor Vehicle Commission to begin phasing in services June 15.
Road tests will resume June 29. The state has added 11 road-test courses and reassigned more than 100 safety specialists to serve as road-test examiners to triple its testing capacity to about 16,300 a week — which will allow the state to work through its backlog within 60 days.