NEW YORK — After two months of shuttered synagogues and empty pews, religious services will be allowed to resume with restrictions in New York state beginning on Thursday.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in his daily news conference Wednesday that religious services may begin if limited to 10 or fewer participants with social distancing and masks in place. The state also is allowing drive-in and parking lot services.
Cuomo stressed that caution must be exercised to make sure the religious gatherings do not become an opportunity for the virus to spread further, pointing to the case of an Orthodox synagogue in suburban New York City’s Westchester County that was found at the center of a cluster of cases in March.
“I understand their desire to get to religious ceremonies as soon as possible. As a former altar boy, I get it,” 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.”
“We know from New Rochelle, Westchester, the first hot spot, that religious ceremonies can be very dangerous,” he said.
The state will work with an Interfaith Advisory Council to discuss proposals to safely bring back religious services. The council consists of dozens of religious leaders, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts.
New York recorded 112 new deaths Tuesday, a slight increase from 105 the previous day but still lower than past weeks.
There were 5,570 people hospitalized statewide, continuing a slow decline that began in mid-April. An average of 295 people a day are newly hospitalized for COVID-19.
The guidelines for small religious gatherings came a day after Cuomo said the state will allow Memorial Day ceremonies with up to 10 people, even though nonessential gatherings have been barred in New York since March.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said both announcements raise constitutional concerns.
“We agree small events where people observe social distancing should be permitted, but that has to apply to all First Amendment events, regardless of message and regardless of whether religious or political,” Christopher Dunn, the group’s legal director, wrote in an email.
The Center for Disease Control had issued guidelines last week for the reopening of restaurants, bars, child care centers, schools and mass transit. The guidelines did not include guidance for reopening places of worship.
New York’s guidance comes as some Orthodox communities grapple with conflicting guidance over resuming services outdoors. Rabbis in communities from Texas to Cleveland to New York’s Long Island have agreed to disagree over how to move forward as states begin to lift restrictions.
Earlier this month, leaders of the Orthodox Union, an umbrella organization for Orthodox synagogues, released guidance on reopening synagogues after a webinar with Dr. Anthony Fauci. The organization pointed to outdoor services as a possible first step in resuming prayer but urged caution in considering any resumption of services.
“The issuance of this guidance does NOT imply that any reopening should be done at this point,” the guide says in bold print.
In Massachusetts, rabbis said they would not reopen immediately even though the governor included houses of worship in the state’s first phase of reopening.