The Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces is believed to be the first in the United States to re-open for Mass, according to two sources who work for the diocese. The vast majority of churches in the US, including Catholic parishes, have shifted to online services only.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Saturday that houses of worship must abide by a public health order banning mass gatherings to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. In a previous order, religious services were exempted. The new order bars gatherings of more than five people.
The diocese said it will abide by the governor’s social-distancing orders, but that didn’t seem to ease concerns at the state Capitol.
“While we appreciate that the diocese stipulates that they will abide by the necessary public health emergency order banning mass gatherings, it is concerning that they would be ‘re-opening’ at all when New Mexico continues to face the Covid-19 pandemic head on,” said Nora Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor.
“Any kind of gatherings that are not absolutely essential to one’s health or welfare are strongly discouraged,” Sackett continued. “New Mexicans and all houses of worship are encouraged to continue to worship at home and broadcast services remotely. Any kind of gathering puts everyone’s health at risk.”
The Rev. Kevin Waymel, a chancellor at the Diocese of Las Cruces, said it will abide by the governor’s social-distancing orders and limit services in churches to five people or less.
The diocese will also encourage Catholics to attend outdoors Masses in church lots while staying parked in their cars at least six feet apart, said Waymel.
Bishop Peter Baldacchino held one such service on Easter Sunday, the priest said, serving Holy Communion to about 220 people. The preparations and serving of Holy Communion included protective covers, gloves, masks and Lysol wipes, said Waymel, who helped administer the sacrament.
“We are abiding by the regulation and taking many more safety measures than any restaurant or fast food place in Las Cruces,” Waymel said.
Some churches have balked at social distancing restrictions
This week, the Justice Department filed court documents in support of Temple Baptist Church in Greenville, Mississippi, which has filed a lawsuit claiming discrimination because of restrictions that apply to churches but not businesses such as restaurants.
Defining what services are essential
Waymel said much of the debate over religious services boils down to one question: Are they essential?
“The bishop (Baldacchino) truly believes that helping someone in their faith is truly essential and cannot only happen through online services. It has to happen with in-person access to Holy Communion,” the priest said.
“In the midst of financial uncertainty, fear for one’s health, pandemic induced anxiety and confinement to their homes, people need a word of hope and our Church offers the essential hope,” said a statement from the diocese, according to KFOX.