Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 10:30 am (CNA).- Two weeks after the Bishop of Portland in Maine called state restrictions on religious gatherings “unacceptable,” Maine’s governor is allowing churches to host at 50% capacity beginning March 26. 

Gov. Janet Mills (D) announced on Friday that Maine churches will soon be able to host indoor religious gatherings at 50% capacity, a significant change from the state’s Feb. 12 restrictions of five people per 1,000 feet of church space or 50 people total.

About two hours before the state issued the order, Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland had announced the diocese would be increasing attendance limits at indoor Masses and liturgies to 50% church capacity. 

“The diocese is pleased that Governor Mills agrees with the diocese’s plan as Maine’s Catholic churches, which have successfully held over 25,000 Masses since June, will now be in line with neighboring states in our ability to provide greater opportunity to parishioners in Maine,” Dave Guthro, the head of communications for the Diocese of Portland, told CNA on Friday.  

The state’s expanded capacity limits can go into effect on the Friday before Holy Week – a liturgical significance that Bishop Deeley emphasized in his statement. 

“The events commemorated in Holy Week are the focus of our reflection and penance during Lent. The climax of the mission of Jesus is unfolded. The love of God he reveals to us becomes very real for us in his suffering, death, and resurrection,” Bishop Deeley said of Holy Week. 

“I know that expanding our capacity for in-person worship at the start of Holy Week will bring great joy to many parishioners who have been unable to attend Mass as they wish due to attendance restrictions. Now, they can participate in the most solemn week of the year as we, together, remember the events which are at the heart of our Christian faith,” he stated.

Precautions will remain in place at churches during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the bishop said, including the dispensation from the Sunday obligation and requirements of masks and social distancing for attendees. 

The announcement of the capacity increase comes one day after nearby Connecticut lifted all capacity restrictions on retail establishments and houses of worship, requiring only social distancing and masking. 

Churches in Maine have been under some of the strictest regulations in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Until Friday’s announcement, capacity at houses of worship had been mostly limited to just 50 people since their reopening in June, 2020. 

There have been no outbreaks of coronavirus traced to a Mass in the state of Maine, the diocese said. 

Maine’s only Catholic diocese has been critical of Gov. Mills over capacity restrictions in recent weeks. 

On Feb. 12, Mills announced an “expansion” of capacity for houses of worship that allowed for five people per 1,000 square feet. According to the diocese, the “expansion” only increased capacity at fewer than 10 of the state’s 141 Catholic churches. 

Deeley called for a percentage capacity restriction similar to that of other states. He said that the governor’s office had refused to work with the diocese in crafting restrictions for houses of worship.

“This ruling, though sold as an ‘expansion,’ provides no real advance for the vast majority of the state,” said Deeley in a Feb. 17 statement provided to CNA. 

Two of Maine’s largest churches–the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston–could hold 975 people and more than 1,500 people inside, respectively. However, under the state’s restrictions, they would only be able to hold at most 63 people and 105 people inside, respectively. 

The previous hard cap of 50 people inside churches had been particularly hard on families, Guthro explained to CNA in February, as a family of five would account for 10% of the legal capacity at one Mass. Many parishes in Maine required people to sign up for Masses ahead of time, and names were checked at the door prior to entry. 

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