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Court ruling, positive trend in infection rates lead to increased church capacity

 The Catholic churches of the Diocese increased to 50 percent capacity in April, following the movement of both San Bernardino and Riverside counties into the less restrictive orange tier.

 The move had been planned when the counties reached the orange tier but an Apr. 9 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the First Amendment protects church’s First Amendment right to assembly, and subsequent decision by Governor Gavin Newsome, essentially made the point moot. Though the State of California still strongly recommends that churches abide the tiered system, they are not mandated to follow it.

 In an Apr. 14 letter to Pastors, Administrators, Pastoral Coordinators and Parish staff members, Bishop Alberto Rojas cautioned that the increase must be done safely and diligently.

 “In the midst of these positive developments we need to be aware that unlike other counties throughout the state, our two counties continue to experience COVID-19 hotspots,” he wrote. “We need to remain vigilant in ensuring that our decisions as pastoral leaders do not jeopardize the progress that we have all made as a Diocese.”

 The Bishop also reduced the social distancing requirement at Mass from six feet to three feet, an adjustment that was seen as essential to being able to increase church capacity to 50 percent. All other COVID-related health precautions, including mandatory face coverings and sanitizing of churches following Mass, remain in place.

 The capacity increase also applies to parish offices and the Diocesan Pastoral Center which brought staffing levels to 50 percent beginning Apr. 19.

 Further increases may not be far off, as the State’s tiered system is set to end on June 15. But that doesn’t mean churches will be completely full right away. Ann Marie Gallant, Director of the Diocesan Emergency Operations Collaborative, said the work that it will take for parishes to safely move to 100 percent capacity could mean Diocesan operations aren’t back to normal until the Fall.

 “We have been and will continue to be cautious in our implementation of ‘full reopening’, in order to ensure that our churches, parish and Pastoral Center office staffs are prepared to fully reopen without risk to priests, religious and laity,” Gallant said.