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

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. 

Gov. Tim Walz
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.
Evan Frost/MPR/Pool

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.”