In-person religious services will be allowed to resume with restrictions on Wednesday after Gov. Tim Walz struck a deal with church leaders who planned to disobey his executive orders and hold mass anyway.
Walz announced the deal Saturday afternoon giving church leaders a few days to put plans in place to meet coronavirus safety requirements the Democratic governor said were more detailed versions of new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Leaders of Minnesota’s Catholic Archdiocese and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, wrote Walz this week to say they would begin holding services during the COVID-19 pandemic against executive orders the governor had issued.
Religious gatherings of 10 or more are currently not allowed under those orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Since the outbreak began, the state has recorded 19,845 laboratory-confirmed infections and 852 fatalities.
“Minnesotans have made great sacrifices to protect their neighbors by staying home,” Walz said in his announcement. “I understand the toll the pandemic has taken on the spiritual health of Minnesotans.”
Churches that hold in-person services must take a number of precautions. They include:
- Six feet of distance between households.
- Occupancy no more than 25 percent of what the fire marshal would typically allow.
- A maximum of 250 people, indoors or outside.
- Churches must develop and implement a COVID-19 response plan.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda, of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, called the agreement an important breakthrough. He thanked Walz and other state leaders for helping to develop a plan to bring back in-person church services.
“The bishops of Minnesota and I are thankful that our conversations with the administration and state health officials have helped us to strengthen our plan for moving forward,” Hebda said in a letter to parishioners. “Gov. Walz and the bishops of Minnesota share a common goal — enabling people of faith to safely return to the full practice of their faith.”
Hebda acknowledged Thursday there would be risks involved with resuming in-person services, but thought they could be managed with safety precautions.
The coronavirus outbreak has already had an impact on Minnesota clergy. Two priests and a monsignor at the Church of St. Timothy in Maple Lake, northwest of the Twin Cities, have tested positive for COVID-19 after coming into contact with members of another parish.
“During this time, staff will continue to sanitize all parts of the church,” The Rev. John Meyer wrote on the church’s Facebook page. “We are looking forward very much to celebrating the mass and spending more time with you in the days ahead, even if from a distance.”
Meyer noted that the church had not held services in violation of existing executive orders.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka is one of many Republican leaders who’ve called on Walz to ease restrictions on churches and other types of gatherings. He said Saturday that religious leaders would put in extra effort to keep people safe.
“As faiths share a value for human life, I know that each leader will take extra care to protect and serve their people. We have to be able to trust one another if we are ever going to be able to reopen.”
At a Saturday afternoon news conference, Walz signaled he was open to reconsidering restrictions on gatherings and businesses if it was supported by science and the proper precautions could be taken. It is unclear what that could mean for restaurants and graduation ceremonies, which are currently either banned or heavily restricted.
“Each step we take brings risk and responsibility for all,” Walz said, noting the restrictions were in place to slow the coronavirus spread. “Those who disregard public health guidance are not just making a statement about their personal freedom, they endanger not only themselves, but their families and their neighbors.”