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After a nearly two-month absence due to the COVID-19 crisis, public Masses are slated to resume in the Archdiocese of Detroit as early as next week, officials announced Tuesday, making the region's Catholic churches the latest to join a slow process of reopening gathering spaces in Michigan.

"In recent weeks, we have watched with relief as our State of Michigan gradually opened to select businesses and activities, with prudent precautions firmly in place to prevent a severe 'second wave' of the coronavirus pandemic," Archbishop Allen Vigneron, who leads the archdiocese and the region's Catholics, said in a letter to worshipers.

"In keeping with this gradual reopening of our society, it is necessary that we make similar arrangements within our local Church to allow once again for the communal celebration of Holy Mass, which at its core is the most 'essential' activity known to our world."

According to newly released liturgical directives posted on the archdiocese website, parishes can resume public Masses on May 19 under certain conditions. Those include having face-coverings/masks worn in and around the church; proper cleaning and sanitizing facilities before or after services; physical distancing; and not exceeding 25% of total capacity for the church.

All archdiocesan parishes will resume public Mass by May 29 following the same guidelines, according to the directives.

"The most important category of individuals to participate at Mass at this time should be those preparing to enter the Catholic Church in the weeks ahead," Vigneron wrote in his letter.

The moves come the week after a protest outside the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament in Detroit called on officials to resume Masses.

The archdiocese suspended public Masses in mid-March as the first COVID-19 cases reached Michigan and regional religious officials rushed to protect their followers. The loss of in-person worship affected plans for Easter and other observances.

While not specifically allowing religious services, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders have exempted places of worship and their owners from penalties attached to violations of her ban on gatherings. An update last week extended that exemption to individuals traveling to and attending services.

Representatives for Whitmer did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday on the archdiocesan plans.

The moves have been under consideration for some time and followed archdiocese officials, along with the state's other Catholic dioceses, communicating with the governor's office, said Ned McGrath, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The archdiocese has also been taking cues from local health departments, he added.

"We're confident that this is being as absolutely prudent and precautionary as possible," he said.

According to the directives, at the start of Mass, and again at the time of Communion, the priest should explain the distribution process, which will include options to receive the host in the hand or mouth.

"For the distribution of Holy Communion, new patterns of approaching the altar might need to be configured to better allow for proper distancing," the archdiocese directives state. "To the extent possible, those in line for Holy Communion should maintain a 6’ distance between each other and those in the pews."

The priest or eucharistic minister should be sure not to touch the recipient in any way when giving Communion.

In addition, the procession to offer the gifts will not be held, and the sign of peace will be omitted from Masses.

Funerals, weddings and baptisms "no longer require individual permission and may resume along the same timeline and under the same conditions," the archdiocese said. "All non-liturgical gatherings should continue to be suspended. At the pastor’s discretion, exceptions may be made if attendees observe strict health and safety guidelines and the gathering does not exceed 10 persons at any one time."

Attendees older than 65, those with a compromised heath condition or those caring for the sick are also encouraged to stay home.

"Anyone who is ill, has a temperature, cough, etc., should definitely stay home as an act of justice to the whole community," the order said. "Clergy with a respiratory infection of any kind should avoid celebrating public Masses or administering the sacraments as they are able to do so during this phase. The same applies to other ministers, e.g., deacons, lectors, ushers, etc."

Mike Cabrera, who attends Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Clawson with his wife and four children, said he misses the pre-virus worship but sees the precautions as helpful and necessary.

"Everyone wants to go to Mass, but at the same time, you want to be safe and healthy," the Sterling Heights resident said. "You don’t want to get anybody sick or get sick. It’s something we just have to get used to."

The resumption comes as other institutions in the state move to reopen in the weeks leading up to Whitmer's orders closing many public places due to the virus outbreak are scheduled to end on May 28.

The Lansing Diocese has announced its parishes would reopen May 18 with guidelines.

This week, a wild animal park near Grand Rapids plans to open for the season on Friday, and a barber in Owosso has made national news by defying state orders to close.

Other religious groups beyond the archdiocese are waiting.

"Bishop David Bard is following the Governor’s recommendations to not hold in-person worship until May 28th or until the Executive Order is lifted," said Mark Doyal, a spokesman for the Michigan Conference of the United Methodist Church, on Tuesday. 

"However, many of our missions and ministries in high-risk areas continue to operate to provide essential housing, healthcare, and food. We have produced extensive recommendations on how to open when those restrictions lift.

"Opening is expected to be slow and measured, similar to how other Michigan organizations will re-open. Our churches have moved online using Facebook, ZOOM and other technologies."

Episcopal Diocese of Michigan members have formulated a three-phased plan for reopening congregations statewide, but they are not expected to open by the end of the month, spokeswoman Anna Stania said.

Meanwhile, all faithful in the Archdiocese of Detroit are dispensed from their Sunday obligation to attend Mass through Sept. 6, according to the directives.

In his letter Tuesday, Vigneron said: "The Mass you may attend in the weeks ahead will look and feel quite different from the Mass you remember from two months ago. It will be imperative for all of us — pastors, parish staff, volunteers, and all the faithful — to work together during these times. The pandemic is not over and safety precautions must be followed in order to promote the continued health and safety of everyone in our community."

There are also updated liturgical guidelines assembled by a COVID-19 Liturgical Committee, Vigneron said.

"They are meant to assist pastors and the faithful in safely participating in Holy Mass while maintaining the sound health precautions counseled by health and government officials," he wrote. "Through it all, we must remember that this virus does not discriminate between gatherings; a group gathered for sacred worship is not immune by the merits of its gathering. It is only through our careful observance of these precautions that we make it possible to resume public Mass."

The news of resumed public Masses encouraged worshipers such as Marilen Martinez, who has attended St. Aloysius in downtown Detroit for more than two years.

Like other Catholics across the region, she turned to archdiocesan services online, including during Easter. But livestreaming differed from gathering with her friends, she said. "Finally, I can see their faces. That’s the other part I'm excited about."

Martinez notes she feels at least some wariness knowing the virus that shuttered the doors still poses a risk for her and others returning to the pews. However, "I feel more comfortable" at St. Aloysius, she said. "It’s a huge church. We’ll be able to spread out."

Laura Knaus, another member of the church, also welcomed returning.

"It’s been a long time and I know it’ll be different because of the distancing and restrictions but I’m excited to be able to worship together again," the 38-year-old said. "I wasn’t quite sure when to expect the resumption of public Masses. I was a little surprised it happened so soon but I think the trends in Detroit have looked good.

"People have been abiding by the social distancing and a lot of progress has been made in keeping people safe. I don’t think they would have allowed it if they didn’t think it was reasonable."

Whitmer, meanwhile, has extended Michigan's stay-home order through May 28 while also lifting some restrictions in recent weeks and unveiling plans to gradually reopen areas as officials monitor COVID-19 trends.

The state reported 90 new deaths and 469 new cases Tuesday, the 13th straight day fewer than 1,000 new cases were tallied, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. 

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