Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced this week that he is lifting capacity limits at a number of facilities, including houses of worship, but according to three pastors on the Eastern Shore, that will not change anything in their churches.
Hogan, a Republican, is allowing restaurants and bars, fitness centers, retail businesses and indoor recreational establishments, among others, to operate without any cap on the percentage of patrons allowed. Social distancing, however, is one of the safety protocols that will remain in place. The current limit, which expires at 5 p.m. March 12, is 50 percent.
At the beach, St. Luke’s Parish in Ocean City has been humming along at six Masses per weekend with a limit of about 245 for each, said the pastor, Father Paul Jennings. Hogan’s order will not change anything there.
“The problem with all these restrictions is not the percentage of building we’re allowed to use. As long as there’s still six-foot social distancing, the building’s not any bigger, and the pews aren’t any longer,” he said.
Where the governor’s order could make a difference is at St. Andrew’s Catholic Center, which is used to host parish functions. But, Father Jennings pointed out, that building is used as a full-time church during the summer, so social distancing will limit the number of people who can go to Mass there.
Full capacity “is all fine and good. You could make it 110 percent, and it wouldn’t mean a thing” as long as people have to stay six feet apart, he added.
Pastors such as Father James Nash at Ss. Peter and Paul in Easton have already carefully measured their churches to allow for the maximum number of worshipers while keeping six feet between them. At Ss. Peter and Paul, that means 220-230 people can attend. Its mission churches are significantly smaller. St. Michael in St. Michaels can hold 90-100, and St. Joseph in Cordova has a maximum of 40 during the pandemic.
“It’s not really going to change much for us,” Father Nash said. “Even when he went to 50 percent, we couldn’t increase it.”
The parish will continue to stream a Mass each weekend, even when all restrictions are gone. Father Nash appreciates the understanding his parishioners have shown over the past year.
“People have been great. They understand it,” he said.
Twenty miles north, in Centreville, the same is true at Our Mother of Sorrows Church.
“We’re going to continue what we’re doing in terms of spacing. We’re not changing it yet,” said the pastor, Father Clemens Manista.
Our Mother of Sorrows and its mission, St. Peter the Apostle in Queenstown, includes about 600 registered families. Currently, Our Mother of Sorrows can hold 80-90 people for Mass. Father Manista said parishioners had to make reservations to attend Mass at Christmas. For Easter, the plan is less restrictive, as church members are asked to notify the parish of its plans, but formal registration is not necessary.
Father Manista is not in a hurry to see the restrictions lifted. Many older parishioners have been vaccinated, but not everyone. They are still running into roadblocks in trying to sign up to get a shot.
“Not everybody has been vaccinated. I just got my first shot the other day,” he said.
What would really make a difference, according to Father Jennings, would be reducing the required distance between people, perhaps to three feet.
“That would be a help,” he said.