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Archdiocese of Baltimore, Episcopal bishops release coronavirus reopening guidelines

The Archdiocese of Baltimore has provided a plan to reopen its parishes after in-person gatherings have been canceled during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Catholic church will institute a phased-in approach, Archbishop William E. Lori wrote in a news release Sunday, informed by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s three-stage plan to reopen the state.

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The first step of the church’s plan will be reopening churches for private prayer, with the number of people allowed to gather limited to three and the enforcement of social distancing guidelines. Confessions, weddings, funerals and baptisms will resume during this stage, with continued limits on the number of people present.

In the second step, public Masses will “most likely” resume, with limitations on gatherings and changes to the service due to social distancing guidelines. The obligation to attend Mass will initially be suspended for those who are sick, vulnerable to COVID-19 or uncomfortable joining.

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Lori wrote that while he believes the first phase of the plan can be implemented “relatively soon,” he does not have a timeline. Maryland has yet to enter the first stage of its reopening, which would allow religious institutions to offer “limited attendance” at outdoor worship.

The Episcopal dioceses are taking a similar approach. The bishops of Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., pledged to coordinate their reopening efforts as the political leaders of the region have been doing, and announced a phased reopening plan for when services are allowed to resume.

“The hard truth is that we will not be able to welcome all people into our places of worship for the foreseeable future,” the bishops wrote in the announcement. “Thus we must prepare for different stages of regathering, following the guidelines of civic leaders.

"Moreover, the process of regathering may not be uniform, but vary according to county or region, and we must also prepare for the possibility of suspending in-person gatherings again should cases of infection rise.”

Phase one, while stay-at-home orders and other crowd restrictions are in place, consists of virtual worship, bible study and other activities.

When case numbers, hospitalizations and intensive care cases have declined for two weeks and significantly limited gatherings are allowed, phase two will accommodate “small indoor church worship," while maintaining social distance and limiting attendees.

As cases “near zero," businesses reopen and governments relax restrictions, phase four will allow for more people to worship together and larger group ministries, including youth groups, camps and classes, to resume. But “restrictive practices may still guide the celebration of Eucharist,” the bishops said.

Once a vaccine is available to the general public and treatments have been proven effective, phase four will lift the remaining restrictions and allow an unlimited number of worshipers to attend services, “except ... those who are known to be infectious, actively sick or who display any of the symptoms of being ill," the bishops said.

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