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New order allows Minnesota churches to hold in-person services at 25 percent capacity

Gov. Tim Walz
Evan Frost/MPR/Pool
Gov. Tim Walz’s new order outlines the guidelines for services to resume for up to 250 people or 25 percent of a building’s capacity as determined by the fire marshal, whichever is lower.

Changing directions with regard to when places of worship can reopen amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz announced that starting Wednesday churches that follow social distancing guidelines will be able to hold services as long as the gatherings don’t exceed 25 percent of a building’s capacity. 

During a press briefing Saturday, Walz said he changed his mind after consulting with religious leaders about how they could safely reopen for in-person services.

A new executive order will lay out the rules. Just three days ago, Walz had said churches would have to wait before reopening for large, in-person services until subsequent phases in his reopening process, but gave no date for when that would happen. 

But the governor had not yet signed the executive order putting his June 1 reopening of restaurants, bars, salons and other gathering places into law. Those orders are usually signed shortly after his announcements and approved by the state’s executive commission, which is made up of Minnesota’s five statewide elected officials.

Religious leaders objected to his initial decision, which allows restaurants to have up to 50 customers in outdoor settings starting June 1. Catholic Archbishop Bernard Hebda said churches under his jurisdiction would defy the order and allow masses to resume May 26, which would let his churches hold mass for the Pentecost, an important date for Christians.  

President Trump urged churches to be reopened this weekend after declaring them essential services, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines Friday. Trump said he would override state orders that are contrary to his position, though his legal authority to do so is unclear.

Given those events and after consultation with church leaders — especially Hebda and the Rev. Dr. Lucas Woodford, the president of the Minnesota South District of the Missouri Synod of Lutherans — Walz took a different path.

The new order regarding places of worship also extends to ceremonies such as weddings and funerals but does not extend to wedding receptions or wakes. Walz noted that it also doesn’t extend to graduations, even those outdoors with fewer than 250 attendees.

“This and graduations have been deeply difficult. I think mainly because the economic pain that’s out there,” Walz said. “We feel that with the restaurateurs, but you can basically replicate a dinner out. You don’t get another shot at the wedding you had planned. Certainly you don’t get another shot at the graduation in the same way.”

Walz’s new order outlines the guidelines for services to resume for up to 250 people or 25 percent of a building’s capacity as determined by the fire marshal, whichever is lower. According to the order, places of worship are to:

  • In all settings, ensure a minimum of 6 feet of physical distancing between households
  • In indoor settings, occupancy must not exceed 25 percent of the normal occupant capacity as determined by the fire marshal, with a maximum of 250 people in a single self-contained space.
  • In outdoor settings, gatherings must not exceed 250 individuals.
  • Develop and implement a COVID-19 Preparedness Plan in accordance with guidance developed by the Minnesota Department of Health

Neither Walz nor his Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm seemed completely comfortable with the decision. Walz, a Lutheran, said he and his family would continue to use video connections to their church and would not be attending services in person. And he said that if churches don’t follow the guidelines, or if infection rates increase dramatically, he would dial back the rules.

“I am under no illusion whatsoever. Every move we make that loosens up increases the risk,” he said. “This is just simply the math and the science behind this. You have more gatherings of more people, you’re going to have more COVID outbreak.

“I certainly would strongly encourage anyone over the age of 65 to give deep consideration to if they are going to do this. All measures can be put in place but as we’ve seen that’s not always good enough.”

Malcolm noted that singing can produce more spread of the virus. She said churches should be careful about how they use music in services.

“With respect to singing, strong recommendations that there not be congregate singing,” she said. “That if there is a singer we strongly encourage the use of recorded music only. If there is a singer we recommend it be a single singer separated by quite a distance from other people wearing a mask or behind some sort of a shield.”

Walz also complemented Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey for his own emergency order that masks be worn in indoor gathering places. He again urged residents of the state to follow state recommendations that masks be worn whenever social distancing can’t be maintained.

“Those who disregard public health guidance aren’t just making a statement about their personal freedom, they’re endangering their family and their neighbors,” Walz said. “And that is why we have always had an agreement around societal things where your personal freedoms don’t infringe on someone else’s personal freedoms or safety.”

A recently released poll conducted by the Star Tribune, MPR and KARE 11 found a solid majority of Minnesotans supported the restrictions put in place by Walz to try and limit the spread of COVID-19, though the governor has not been without detractors. One of the biggest critics of Walz’s previous order regarding churches was Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake.

On Saturday, Gazelka credited religious leaders for the change. “I want to thank the faith leaders who stepped up to make sure religious groups were not treated differently than other businesses,” Gazelka said. “Many of them have spent the last several months adapting their ministry in preparation for reopening. They rightfully felt left behind as other businesses were given more room to reopen. 

“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.”

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Tim McCarthy on 05/23/2020 - 06:10 pm.

    With apologies to R. Stevens

    The day the covid went berserk
    In the first self-righteous church
    Infecticting all them holy catholic/lutherans
    (catholic/lutherans)

    It was a fight for survival
    That came from a revival
    They was coughing in pews
    And sneezing Hallelujah (hallelujah)

    Then all the way down the amen pew
    Where sat Sister Bertha sneezing on you
    Who’d been watchin’ all the dying with sadistic glee
    But you should have seen the look in her eyes
    When the covid jumped her lungs and she thought she’d die
    She jumped to her feet and cried out “Nurse, have mercy on me”

    The day the covid went berserk
    In the first self-righteous church Infecticting all them holy catholic/lutherans

    Well 7 deacons and then the pastor got graved
    But 25 thousand dollars was raised!
    And 50 volunteered for vaccines from the Congo on the spot
    And even without an invitation
    There were at least 500 more ln-fec-ta-tion
    And we all got coronatized whether we needed it or not

    The day the covid went berserk
    In the first self-righteous church
    Infecticting all them holy catholic/lutherans
    (catholic/lutherans)

  2. Submitted by Alan Nilsson on 05/23/2020 - 06:28 pm.

    The experience of one Canadian church which met inside their building at 20% of capacity:

    https://calgary.ctvnews.ca/i-would-do-anything-for-a-do-over-calgary-church-hopes-others-learn-from-their-tragic-covid-19-experience-1.4933461

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/25/2020 - 06:14 pm.

      Did you read that entire link?

      It was not just a church service, but also a birthday party immediately following. Further, the day before a large choir performed in the church.

      While the article indicates they followed recommendations in effect at the time, keeping 6′ apart, they served food. There is no indication how distant congregants were during the service, whether or not they were wearing masks, how many people were over 65 or had underlying health conditions, or if a common cup was shared. It’s tough to eat birthday cake with a mask on. (Same deal for a BLT at a restaurant’s side walk table.) We have no idea how they handled (presumably) going through a few doors going from the sanctuary to the social hall. Did many of them touch door handles or knobs on the way?

      This sounds not at all analogous to what many churches will be practicing.

  3. Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/24/2020 - 08:26 am.

    The pious Gazelka: “[Churches] rightfully felt left behind as other businesses were given more room to reopen”.

    Oy, “other businesses”? That’s a nice Freudian slip. Somehow I don’t think our devout elected “conservative” quite understands why the Archbishop thinks worship services are “essential”! But we can definitely see what Repubs like Gazelka think “essential”…

    Well, this cave by Walz should avert the bitter legal battle that Defender of the Faith Trump had hoped for, although St Donald the Amoral will surely be crowing about changes such as this as a yooge “victory” (for him, not religion). Bigly!

    Best of luck to the parishioners who think this so utterly essential,there are some terrible church-related Covid-19 disasters out there across the globe, but whatever. Now one can publicly proclaim both their faith and their politics in one stop! Make sure to refuse to wear a mask as well, that’ll be the next First Amendment “right”.

    Next up, the “right” to be Typhoid Mary. Pulling together!

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 05/24/2020 - 10:11 am.

    Put thousands of people in big box stores (close small stores and businesses) daily but don’t allow folks their right to worship. The people going to church will understand fully their risk (very little if you don’t fall into 2 categories) and are willing to accept that risk….. Leave them alone to worship God as they please.
    Never thought I would see the day when some State official would stand at the door of a church, synagogue or mosque counting heads and determine that enough people have been allowed in. The most amazing thing is many Minnesotans think this is a great idea. Big Government run amok.

    • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/24/2020 - 11:42 am.

      Well, it shows most Minnesotans think they are watching sensible attempts by a responsible state government to combat a dangerous pandemic, not “Big Government run amok”. Which means that you are in a decided political minority, which many here have been trying to tell you….

      As for the eager parishioners, let’s hope they do indeed “understand fully their risk”. This is a common backbone of conserva-tarian “thought”, which usually doesn’t bear all that much resemblance to reality, unfortunately, especially thanks to “conservative” media and people (like you!) who wrongly tell them Covid-19 is about as much a problem as the common flu.

      But yes, Hallelujah! See you in church?

      • Submitted by Charles Holtman on 05/24/2020 - 12:35 pm.

        I guess when you only live your faith for two hours on Sunday morning, it’s pretty important to be able to get into the building.

      • Submitted by Ron Quido on 05/26/2020 - 06:32 pm.

        Stay home if you’re that concerned about your risk. No one is forcing you to go into any building. Let the rest of us make our own choices.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 05/25/2020 - 03:31 pm.

      I agree that if precautions are taken and its below capacity then churches should be able to reopen as should other religious meeting places. However Menards and places of worship are not the same–i don’t know of anyone who spends 1-2 hrs at Menards, holding hands, singing and standing close. The nature of worship is communal. It also can be done virtually, although not ideal, it can be done; so there was no banning, no outlawing, etc.. And there were outbreaks in places of worship that did not follow precautions as seen in the south and here in Annandale.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/25/2020 - 05:49 pm.

        It is my understanding that churches that will be holding in-person services will not be singing, nor standing close enough to exchange a physical sign of peace; a wave and a head nod will suffice for the modern day Kiss of Peace, which dates to the earliest days of the church.

        Further, churches will be letting individual families in one by one, physically distant ushers showing them to their pew, filling in from front to back. Markings will be on the floor of the aisles, so people know the proper distance for the communion line. There will not be a shared cup, communion is not to be distributed on the tongue. Once communion is received, the masked congregants are to leave immediately out the side door, not the front where they entered. That all sounds more highly controlled than any Menards I’ve been in recently.

        Bishop Hebda has stressed that those who are compromised should not attend, and are not bound to attend. I’ve seen plenty of older folks in Menards, which I get to for my essential job, and not for supplies to build a non-essential deck.

        Not all churches will follow these procedures, of course. Just as not all Menards shoppers stay physically distant.

        Do we know that it is more likely to get Covid at a regulated church service than a poorly regulated Menards? Presumably we could be experiencing outbreaks due to shopping at Menards, but we may just not be aware of that, given the poor state of contact tracing.

  5. Submitted by Sally Casey on 05/24/2020 - 11:16 pm.

    In Fargo we have been back at church for three weeks with no adverse effects, in spite of this being a Covid hot spot. Many of us attend during weekdays *when no collections are taken* (just adding that for the ones who think this is about $$ — but many of us don’t put $ in the basket on Sundays anyway bc we do auto withdrawl so that point is null anyway). Yes, thousands of Catholics have attended masses here in Fargo these past three weeks, practicing careful social distancing–much different from the linked article from Canada where they even shared a meal and didn’t wear masks, but similar to what they will be doing in MN next week. I’m not worried at all for MN churchgoers. That said, I do not demonize Walz. I think he is doing what he thinks is right. I don’t agree with it but it seems like now is as good a time as any to be a little more daring. At-risk people have mechanisms in place to stay safe at home now and most hospitals are ready to handle an increase if needed (I don’t think it will be overwhelming at all). Praying for you all.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/25/2020 - 11:30 am.

      We shall see what things are like three weeks from now.

      If only people who feel invulnerable are going out now and attending church, then they may have contracted asymptomatic infections, which they can then spread to more vulnerable members of the community.

      My entire denomination (Episcopal) is shut down now and plans to reopen only gradually in consultation with state health authorities. It is especially heart-breaking for us devoted choir members, since group singing will be one of the last elements added, but we understand why these measures are being taken.

      Meanwhile, I am “attending” online services sponsored by my parish, as well as some sponsored by the National Cathedral in Washington and Canterbury Cathedral in England.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/25/2020 - 05:54 pm.

        One cool thing is taking in services from around the globe, all in English. On Easter, I watched a Mass from a monastery in the Holy Land. (No, the one just west of the UK.) I’ve also watched one from Finland, the UaE, and around the country.

  6. Submitted by Ron Quido on 05/25/2020 - 08:51 pm.

    Gov. Walz quote: “And that is why we have always had an agreement around societal things where your personal freedoms don’t infringe on someone else’s personal freedoms or safety.” What about guns?

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/26/2020 - 08:45 am.

      Tell that to the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary who would say being able to send your 6 year old to school is about personal freedom and safety.

      • Submitted by Ron Quido on 05/26/2020 - 06:29 pm.

        My point was that if we have a social agreement that one person’s rights shouldn’t infringe on another’s freedom and safety, then why do we allow people to own guns.

        • Submitted by BK Anderson on 05/27/2020 - 08:49 am.

          Well, because (largely unregulated) gun ownership in America is an unfortunate and massive exception to the general rules of morality and civilization. We are at bottom a barbaric people, and (according to polls) defend barbarism as a “civil right”.

          A civilized society could possibly countenance those who wish a single handgun for home “defense”, and even that’s a stretch. It cannot include the “right” to a personal arsenal of high powered weaponry that an infantryman would be expected to carry. Not to mention brandish in public as a political “statement”.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/26/2020 - 10:48 am.

      Yes, I think we can all agree that people need to be safe from guns.

  7. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/26/2020 - 08:42 am.

    And, as a great man of the people once told us:

    Jesse Ventura > Quotes > Quotable Quote

    “Organized religion is a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people who need strength in numbers. It tells people to go out and stick their noses in other people’s business. I live by the golden rule: Treat others as you’d want them to treat you. The religious right wants to tell people how to live.”

  8. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 05/26/2020 - 10:06 pm.

    So, the cults, the non-taxpayers are open for business. But essential businesses, those who pay taxes are not. 🤔 This will get ugly at both ends.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/27/2020 - 06:20 pm.

      It was the adherents of these “cults” whi were the prime movers of the efforts to end slavery & Jim Crow in this country, as well as build most of the hospitals we have.

      But yeah, cults.

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