REGIONAL- Bowing to pressure from church leaders and the Trump administration, Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday gave the green light to Minnesota houses of worship to re-open for limited in-person services …
REGIONAL- Bowing to pressure from church leaders and the Trump administration, Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday gave the green light to Minnesota houses of worship to re-open for limited in-person services beginning Wednesday, May 27.
Walz said the new guidelines were being issued after President Donald Trump declared houses of worship essential institutions, after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for religious services, and after state leaders consulted with Minnesota faith leaders. Walz also said he had a telephone conversation with Vice President Mike Pence prior to issuing his updated guidance.
As of May 27, houses of worship are allowed to open at 25 percent occupancy if they adhere to social distancing and other public health guidelines and specific requirements of each, including the posting of a plan. This includes services for weddings and funerals, but does not change the ten-person group limit for activities such as receptions that might follow such events.
Claiming they should be considered equally alongside businesses, Minnesota Catholic and Lutheran leaders notified Gov. Tim Walz on May 20 that their congregations intended to resume in-person worship services at 33-percent capacity, in opposition to Walz’s executive order that restricted worship activities to ten persons or less.
Catholic Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis Bernard Hebda welcomed Walz’s revised guidelines.
“I am so thankful for the honest, open, and fast-paced dialogue we had over these past days and am pleased we could come to a consensus about a reasonable and safe path forward that allows a greater number of people to safely return to worship,” Hebda wrote in a statement released Saturday.
Walz cautioned that Minnesota has not yet reached its peak for COVID-19 cases and urged congregations to continue online worship services if possible.
Catholic Diocese of Duluth Administrator Bissonette issued a statement reinforcing that parishes should be thoughtful about the decision to re-open, and that parishoners are not required to attend Mass.
“Parishes should only open when they are able to implement the protocols,” Bissonette wrote. “Again, if the faithful feel safer at home, the dispensation from the obligation to attend Sunday Mass remains lifted. We also strongly encourage those over the age of 65 or who are especially vulnerable not to attend for now.”
And while the response has been favorable from most of those wanting to re-open services, the governor’s actions haven’t gone far enough for others. As reported Tuesday by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, two Twin Cities churches have filed a lawsuit contending that any governmental restrictions constitute a violation of their religious freedoms.
Area Catholics reopening
A newsletter sent to members of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Ely and St. Pius X Catholic Church in Babbitt indicated those congregations will resume Mass on June 2, with online streaming of services continuing for those who feel uncomfortable attending in person.
Catholic churches in Tower, Cook, and Orr, served by Father Nick Nelson, will re-open for Mass this Saturday and Sunday.
“This is the best time to come back to the Church or come to it for the first time,” Nelson wrote in a letter sent to parishioners and provided to the Timberjay. “No one will notice that you weren’t at Mass last week because NO ONE was at Mass last week! While there will always be risks of contagion we believe we are taking the necessary steps so that you can be safe and be at peace in our Churches.”
Nelson noted that his parish has implemented an online sign-up process for services due to the 25-percent capacity restriction. As of Tuesday afternoon, 26 people had signed up for 65 spaces at St. Mary’s in Cook, 32 people had signed up for 75 slots at St. Martin’s in Tower, and four people had signed up for 40 spots at Saturday vigil Mass at Holy Cross in Orr.
And while Vermilion and Pelican Lake parishes are using a generic online sign-up site, a local Tower man has developed a site designed for churches.
Frank Zobitz runs Northwoods Professionals Group, a business which provides affordable technology services to small businesses and non-profit organizations to meet their needs. Using previously developed booking apps for sports venues, Zobitz has rolled out bookapew.com to facilitate reserved seating for church services.
“It’s a low cost but simple set up,” Zobitz said. “Many of those other ones have it more involved to get set up and working. I always strive for an easy user experience and an easy administrator experience.”
Church services are displayed on a calendar and when a user chooses a date the number of available spaces is displayed. They fill out a form with their name, email address, and number of spaces to reserve, and receive an email confirmation.
Zobitz said churches can choose to do reservations on a seat-by-seat basis or allow people to reserve entire pews. One-year and two-year subscriptions for churches are available.
After a national press release and follow-up marketing to faith-based organizations, bookapew.com is drawing national attention, Zobitz said.
“Within two days of the press release somebody in 40 of our 50 states looked at the website,” he said. “I’ve gotten quite a few inquiries and I’ve got customers in Minnesota and in Massachusetts.”
Meanwhile, a significant number of denominations and churches have decided against re-starting in-person services and will continue with alternative ways to provide services and support to members.
Pastor Doug Workman of St. James Presbyterian Church in Tower said he would continue posting worship videos to the church’s YouTube page, St James Presbyterian Tower, MN. He also stays in contact with members via email, sending midweek devotionals, care concerns, and bulletins and sermons.
Workman said church elders would begin in mid-June to assess possibilities for restarting in-person services in July after having an opportunity to observe how the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve and how other churches have been affected.
“There haven’t been a lot of cases up here compared to other places,” Workman said. “A lot of our people are older so I don’t know if they’re going to be comfortable anyway.”
Trinity Lutheran Church has already decided to remain virtual through the summer, Pastor Erika Foss said.
“With a very strong directive from Bishop Thomas Aitken, the decision of our church council, along with my support, we will not be worshiping in our building through the summer,” Foss said. “This is not a decision made easily or lightly, but a decision made out of safety for our congregation, staff and community.”
In addition to online worship, Trinity is collaborating with Immanuel Lutheran Church in Tower to hold monthly drive-in services in the North Woods School parking lot, with one scheduled for this Sunday.
“Our church council has put together a small team of leaders to look at all the resources, recommendations, requirements and other items to develop a plan of when and how we will be able to worship together in our building,” Foss said. “As Lutherans we believe that Christ is with us whenever and wherever we are gathered in his name, Matthew 18:20. The church never closed, we just aren’t able to worship inside the building of Trinity Lutheran. We are the church wherever ‘we’ children of God are.”