WASHINGTON — Many Catholic parishes in Texas will continue to ask parishioners to wear face masks and will limit capacity for Masses even though the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, announced March 2 these pandemic restrictions would be lifted the following week.
Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso said he has been getting a lot of questions after the governor’s announcement wondering if it would affect parish coronavirus safety practices.
“The short answer is no!” he said in a March 4 statement, noting Abbott has often pointed out that “churches are free to exercise their religious liberty and set their own protocols.”
“The protocols we have established were intended to collaborate with state and local practices but were not undertaken under the direction of these entities,” Bishop Seitz said.
He stressed that the Catholic parishes in El Paso County “will not be making any changes at the present time to the protocols we have presently set in place. For the time being, churches will be limited to a maximum of 25% of their capacity. Social distancing and masks will be required in all church facilities.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves similarly announced March 2 he was lifting that state’s mask mandate, effective the next day, and that businesses would be able to operate at full capacity. Dozens of other states have loosened restrictions on mask requirements or never had them in effect.
Texas has had the mask mandate since July and is now the largest state not to have this protocol in place. Abbott announced on Twitter March 2: “I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING. I also ended the statewide mask mandate.” He went on to cite lower COVID-19 hospitalizations and declining numbers of infections.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has called the Mississippi and Texas orders “ill-advised” particularly in light of plateauing infection numbers.
And Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also warned against these actions. In a White House briefing March 1, she said: “We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained,” if restrictions are loosened at a time when there are emerging coronavirus variants.
Bishop Seitz said that even though the number of COVID-19 cases has decreased in the El Paso region, the area still has the highest percentage of hospitalizations due to the coronavirus than any larger city in Texas. He said there are still deaths related to COVID-19 and that diocesan priests continue to report calls from families with loved ones suffering from the virus.
Due to the decrease in COVID-19 cases, the diocese has begun celebrating funeral rites and weddings again. Diocesan officials also have been encouraged by the number of people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine, but the bishop said the community is “not anywhere near a level that experts refer to as ‘herd immunity’ and we will not reach that level for some time.”
But he expressed hope that that day would come soon and that “as progress continues, God willing, we will soon be able to relax these limitations. For the time being, however, we must stay the course for the good of all the members of the church of El Paso and our community as well.”
In a pastoral letter issued March 4, Bishop Michael F. Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, said that after consultation with diocesan priests, civic officials, members of the laity, and medical and health professionals, he decided the diocese should keep its safety protocols in place.
The protocols have included wearing masks, practicing social distancing, receiving Communion only in the hand, and the frequent and regular use of sanitizing and hand washing.
Bishop Olson wrote that it is “our Christian responsibility to maintain our concern for others especially those most vulnerable so that we attend Mass safely and contribute to the common good of our parishes and the larger community of our towns, counties and state.”
He also stressed the diocese is gradually moving to a time when it can “more safely relax our restrictions and protocols as hospitalizations decrease and people are immunized.”
He said the church is not moving “toward a modern sense of subservience to the civil government nor toward an equally contemporary disposition of self-reliance and autonomy — negligent of our natural responsibilities in charity and justice toward God and our neighbor.”
Similarly, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller of San Antonio, in a March 4 statement, said he determined, after reviewing the governor’s order and getting advice from health authorities and local civic officials, “that all of the safety measures in place at the current time are to be continued throughout the Archdiocese of San Antonio until further notice.”
He said the use of face masks, along with social distancing and regular hand-washing and sanitizing procedures “have been effective in keeping us safe. These will not be changed at this time.” He also urged pastors to continue to livestream Masses.
A March 5 statement from the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston likewise said archdiocesan officials have had a number of meetings about the governor’s order and determined that to best “protect the most vulnerable among us,” they would keep current protocols “in place until further notice, including the requirement for face coverings at Mass and other liturgical celebrations.”
It also said protocols for archdiocesan Catholic schools will remain in place through the end of the academic year.
In a pastoral letter to Catholic in the Diocese of Austin, Bishop Joe S. Vásquez also said that the “temporary protocols for the celebration of the sacraments in the Diocese of Austin remain in effect.”
In his March 5 letter, he said as more people are vaccinated, the diocese may be able to eventually “safely modify the protocols, giving more freedom at our liturgies and parish activities.” But for now, he asked diocesan Catholics to “stay the course in preparation for the time when this pandemic is no longer dangerous to the health of society.”
Bishop Joseph E. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, is taking a different approach. In a March 3 statement, he said that in light of the governor’s announcement, he was lifting the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation effective March 10, except for those who are sick, at a high-risk for COVID-19, pregnant, caring for the sick or homebound or have a “significant fear or anxiety of becoming ill by being at Mass.”
He said pastors could open additional pews in churches but should still make sure social distancing is in place between households.
Regarding face masks, he said: “While there is no requirement to wear masks, and it is an individual choice, I encourage all to continue to follow the recommendations of the CDC.”
He also said parishes may make holy water, hymnals, and missalettes available, stressing that holy water should be changed, and the fonts cleaned frequently. Holy Communion should continue to only be in the form of bread, not wine, for the congregation and parish social events, classes, and other activities are permitted if they follow CDC guidelines.
In their statements, the bishops urged prayers for the losses of the past year and for continued healing.
Bishop Seitz urged diocesan Catholics to “continue to pray for all those presently suffering from this insidious virus and for all our loved ones who have died in this year of pandemic.”
Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim