Places of worship can reopen this weekend, but some will wait longer before bringing their congregants back

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald The Rev. Apolinario Ty walks through the sanctuary Wednesday at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hilo. Places of worship are free to reopen Saturday.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Hymnals and bibles are stacked at the front of the sanctuary of St. Joseph Catholic Church on Wednesday in Hilo.

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald The Rev. Apolinario Ty stands at the front of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hilo on Wednesday.

While places of worship will be allowed to reopen Saturday, some churches are choosing to remain closed for the time being to protect their congregations.

Mayor Harry Kim announced last week that places of worship would be able to reopen June 1 after months of closure alongside other medium-risk establishments; however, a subsequent announcement Thursday moved that date forward, permitting places of worship to reopen Saturday.

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But not all churches will choose to open this weekend, instead opting to wait for the COVID-19 pandemic to subside before bringing congregants back.

“Right now, I think we’ll be waiting until at least July to reopen, and that’s not settled yet, either,” said Eric Anderson, pastor at the Church of the Holy Cross in Hilo.

Anderson said his church’s reluctance to reopen immediately is based on two primary concerns. One concern is obvious, he said: If cases of COVID-19 increase as the economy reopens, in-person church services can endanger congregants unnecessarily.

The other concern is more practical, he said. Guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise places of worship to frequently and thoroughly disinfect surfaces and provide soap and hand sanitizer for staff and congregants. Anderson said he is concerned about whether the church can secure an adequate supply of cleaning products.

Places of worship are required to follow CDC guidelines when reopening, according to Kim’s announcement. Among those guidelines are social distancing directions, which advise places of worship to limit the number of people gathered at any given time.

Because of those requirements, churches will have to make major changes to their services.

St. Joseph Catholic Church in Hilo, which will reopen June 7, will require congregants to reserve their seats by telephone days before Mass because the number of available seats will be limited.

St. Joseph’s pastor Apolinario Ty said the church’s usual capacity is about 300, but only 90 will be able to attend Mass at once while maintaining social distancing practices. To alleviate this, Ty said the church is considering additional daily services to allow more people to attend, but that will require additional sanitizations.

“But (Bishop Larry Silva, who oversees the Diocese of Honolulu) is still extending his dispensation at least through June,” Ty said. “So Mass on any day of the week will still fulfill the obligation to attend Sunday Mass.”

“We’re lucky in that our pews aren’t bolted to the ground,” Anderson said, adding that his church, which has a capacity of about 200, would only be able to seat 80 or 90 under social distancing guidelines. “But then again, we probably won’t have so many people joining right away.”

But one of Hilo’s larger congregations will not reopen Saturday or in the foreseeable future. New Hope Hilo, which regularly attracts about 1,000 congregants on Sundays, has no plans for reopening right now, said lead pastor Sheldon Lacsina.

“We’re focusing more on how we’ll reopen, rather than when,” Lacsina said. “Our decision is based on what kind of experience people will have when they come back.”

Lacsina said the culture of New Hope would be sorely tested by COVID-mitigating policies, explaining that congregants are accustomed to embracing and kissing during greetings.

“And I don’t know if you’ve tried singing in a mask, but it’s not easy,” Lacsina said.

Because most churches have transitioned smoothly to online services, Lacsina said it makes more sense to allow congregants to continue to meet virtually while staying with their families.

Lacsina and Anderson both said their respective congregations are largely in favor of their continued closures.

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“I think our congregation has adopted the notion that our caution is an expression of care and concern for our community,” Anderson said.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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