NEW YORK – After the Center for Disease Control (CDC) eased mask requirements for vaccinated Americans last week, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh decided it was important to adopt the guidance in his diocesan churches but still find a way to accommodate those who are uncomfortable among a general population of mask-less people.
His solution: Designating a section of the church where masks are required.
“When we took a look at what the CDC was saying, we realized that there was still a lot of skittishness relative to wearing a mask and not wearing a mask,” Zubik told Crux.
“We felt that it would be important to announce to people this week that when they get to Mass on Sunday those who have been fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks, those who have not been fully vaccinated are to wear masks, and if anybody felt uncomfortable sitting in the general population, we thought it was a good consideration to have a portion of the church set aside.”
Zubik isn’t alone. Ever since the CDC announcement a growing number of dioceses announced they will modify their COVID-19 mask mandates – and precautions in general – to varying degrees in the coming weeks citing local and state regulations, infections and vaccination rates.
Some have made masks optional for vaccinated people and others, like Zubik, created separate sections in the churches. Other dioceses have simply made the masks optional for vaccinated people, and some have made masks optional altogether.
Meanwhile, many dioceses have kept their COVID-19 mask mandates and precautions intact.
In the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archbishop William Lori lifted the mask mandate at Masses all together on May 15. The CDC announcement, Governor Larry Hogan lifting restrictions, COVID-19 positivity and hospitalizations rates dropping, along with more vaccinations were all factors in the decision.
“Those were the factors. I think the motivation is to try to return to a worship experience as normal as possible,” Lori told Crux. “We certainly are keeping our eye on safety but at the same time I think it’s incumbent upon us to encourage as many people as can do so to church in as great of numbers as possible.”
Lori noted that unvaccinated people are still encouraged to wear masks, but acknowledged it’s not something that can be enforced. Zubik said the same, but added that he hopes “people are going to be following what the CDC is calling for out of concern for the general population.”
“I think we want to basically say let’s trust that people are following along, because there’s a lot at stake here as far as the health and safety of the general population of people coming to church,” Zubik said.
Other dioceses that have announced they have or will modify their mask mandates in the coming weeks include: Covington, Harrisburg, Charlotte, Knoxville, as well as the Archdioceses of Cincinnati and Boston.
Down in Florida, one of the first states to lift COVID-19 restrictions, Archbishop Thomas Wenski has stayed the course with a mask mandate and other precautions and announced last week he will continue to do so despite the CDC’s new guidelines.
“I think the CDC guidelines were very confusing and trying to make sense of them I basically said we’re going to stay the course and we’ll review it in a couple of weeks,” Wenski said.
In a conversation with Crux, Wenski said they haven’t had anyone contract COVID-19 at a Mass in the archdiocese, but noted the three counties – Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe – are densely populated and there’s still plenty of young people and children that haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated. Therefore, he believes it’s important to be prudent in his approach.
The archbishop’s decision hasn’t come without backlash from some parishioners.
“I get a few emails. Some of them angry emails,” Wenski said. “You might be a little annoyed, but out of charity for your neighbor keep on wearing (the mask) and that’s my response.”
There are also some dioceses that had lifted mask mandates long before any announcement from the CDC. One is the Diocese of Fort Worth, where Bishop Michael Olson made masks optional at Mass at the beginning of April. He did, however, keep social distancing of three feet and sanitization protocols in place.
By his estimations it’s gone “very smoothly,” with few cases that have popped up.
“We haven’t seen a spike by any degree at all and we’ve certainly not been a part of a super spreader,” Olson told Crux.
On Thursday, Olson published a pastoral letter that Holy Water fonts at church entrances to be filled, Hymnals to be used and collection plates to be passed around, but maintains three feet social distancing and sanitization requirements.
“For our state, there are people who want to just act with passions and say, ‘OK that’s it everything’s open,’ and this is still a very real thing and it requires prudence and grades of decisions,” Olson said. “It’s measure twice, cut once. It’s be very prudent on these things still.”
Now that the country has reached this point with less COVID-19 cases and more vaccinations, Lori is hopeful a return to normal is on the horizon.
“Our hope and prayer is that by July 11, it might all be back to normal,” Lori said. “Just 100 percent back to normal … [but] predictions have been made all through this pandemic that didn’t work out so well.”
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg