A two-month-long prohibition on mass gatherings remains in effect, but houses of worship in New York will be allowed to resume religious services on Thursday.
There will be limits. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday that religious services can be held with no more than 10 people — they must wear masks — and strict social distancing guidelines must be followed. Churches and other religious institutions are encouraged to hold drive-in or parking lot services.
The policy change is part of the phased reopening in New York. Seven of New York's 10 regions have slowly started to reopen some businesses and low-risk recreational activities, such as golf and tennis, are permitted.
There were questions from religious leaders about when services could resume. Cuomo had said that because ceremonies involve mass gatherings, allowing religious services to resume wouldn't happen until the fourth phase of the reopening process. For the regions already in phase one, that means churches and other houses of worship wouldn't reopen, at the earliest, until late June.
More than 300 New York pastors signed a letter to Cuomo requesting the reopening of churches for services. They disagreed with the state's designation that houses of worship weren't considered essential.
"All New Yorkers, and Americans, have a God-given right — recognized in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — to the free exercise of religion," the pastors wrote. "Christians also have a responsibility to meet with other believers regularly. While we respect the authority of government, we must ultimately answer to a much higher authority."
At his briefing Wednesday, Cuomo detailed his initial plan for allowing services to restart. He said his administration will work with the Interfaith Advisory Council to develop a plan for resuming religious services on a larger scale.
One of Cuomo's concerns is that the first COVID-19 outbreak in New York stemmed from gatherings at a synagogue in Westchester County.
"I think even at this time of stress and when people are so anxious and so confused, I think those religious ceremonies can be very comforting," Cuomo said. "But we need to find out how to do it, and do it safely and do it smartly. The last thing we want to do is have a religious ceremony that winds up having more people infected."
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.
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