A blue-ribbon panel of Catholic doctors from some of the nation’s top research hospitals and universities said churches should be able to reopen “as safely as other essential services,” after being shut down for more than two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a document published on the Catholic Medical Association website, www.cathmed.org, and sent out to the nation’s bishops the week of May 11, the seven-member panel offered a “road map” for the nation’s churches, including guidance on how to hear confessions and resume public celebrations of the Eucharist.
“I believe that churches can be just as safe, if not at times safer than so-called ‘essential businesses,’ provided they take the precautions that are recommended in this document,” said Dr. Anushree Shirali, a nephrologist at the Yale University School of Medicine who has been treating coronavirus dialysis patients since the pandemic broke out in March.
In exclusive interviews with Angelus, the Los Angeles archdiocesan news platform, Shirali and other authors of the document said they came together to offer guidance as Catholics and health professionals who want to help their bishops develop “safest practices” based on the best medical evidence on the coronavirus.
States began reopening in May, with most following federal guidelines and benchmarks for a “phased in” return to normal operations of businesses, schools, and other social functions.
And while several dioceses around the country have announced initial, cautious plans for reopening, churches remain sharply limited under many state recovery plans, including plans in New York and California, two of the states hardest hit by the coronavirus.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom envisions “in-person religious services” not opening until the third phase of his four-phase plan, listing churches among other “higher risk environments,” such as movie theaters and sporting events.
In their new document, the blue-ribbon panel of specialists from Yale, Columbia, UCLA and the Mayo Clinic question the premise churches pose higher risks for spreading the virus.
“Safest practices should be created with input from medical experts,” the new document said. “These practices will likely evolve as the pandemic unfolds and will vary based on ongoing local, regional, and national risk assessments.”
In interviews, the doctors emphasized churches should be regarded as essential partners in rebuilding society in the wake of the pandemic, and said there are reasons to believe churches can do an even better job protecting people than other institutions in society.
“If you should have best practices for a grocery store and for a Home Depot, why can’t you have best practices for church services?” said Dr. Andrew Wang, an immunobiologist who is helping to guide clinical research into the virus at Yale.
In their road map, the doctors recommend Mass be celebrated using social-distancing measures with congregants wearing masks and churches should be cleaned thoroughly between services. Singing should be avoided, they said, and Communion should be received in the hand, with younger priests or ministers preferred for distributing Communion.
The sacrament of confession, the doctors recommended, “should follow safe social-distancing practices and be carried out in a well-ventilated area, outdoors or in the main church” with both priest and penitent wearing masks and with an “impermeable physical barrier” between them.
In a May 14 memorandum, Archbishop Leonard P. Blair of Hartford, Conn., head of the U.S. bishops’ divine worship committee, offered the new document as “another resource” for bishops working on their reopening plans.
Archbishop Blair had earlier circulated a document prepared by another group of doctors for the Thomistic Institute, affiliated with the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.
The chief difference between this new document and the earlier one concerns how Communion should be distributed and received.
While the Thomistic Institute concluded that “it is possible to distribute on the tongue without unreasonable risk,” this new document urged that Communion be distributed in the hand, citing “newly available evidence” about the transmission of the coronavirus through saliva.