By Emily Drooby and Paula Katinas
WINDSOR TERRACE – Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio said Wednesday that the rights of Catholics in the Diocese of Brooklyn are being violated, following news that Gov. Andrew Cuomo is mandating new COVID-19 restrictions on church attendance across the Diocese of Brooklyn.
The bishop said that New York State should ease the restriction Cuomo placed on religious institutions, during a news conference on Oct. 6, in so-called red zones, or COVID-19 hot spots, limiting attendance at services to a maximum of 10 people. The bishop wants churches in red zones to be able to operate at 25 percent capacity, without a cap of 10 people. Under the governor’s new order, churches in red zones are allowed to hold religious services at 25 percent capacity but with a 10 percent limit.
“It is outrageous that after incurring great expense to implement all the safety protocols, our parishes are being forced to reduce capacity to a maximum of 10 people in the red zone and 25 people in the orange zone,” Bishop DiMarzio said in a statement released by the Diocese of Brooklyn Tuesday night. “To think that some of our churches have the capacity to hold a thousand people for Mass, a capacity range of 10 to 25 people is disrespectful to Catholics and to the clergy who all have followed the rules and, as such, have prevented a spike in COVID cases within the confines of the hot zones.”
While areas in several neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens have seen increases in COVID-19 cases, the churches have not seen a spike, according to Bishop DiMarzio.
On the governor’s order banning mass gatherings of people, Bishop DiMarzio said the diocese has been obeying that rule all along and has been limiting attendance to 25 percent capacity for Masses. “The fact of the matter is we don’t have mass gatherings,” he said. All church activities, except for Masses, have been temporarily suspended.
Cuomo’s mandate limits attendance at religious services to just 10 people in so-called red zones, where COVID-19 cases are on the rise. The red zones are seeing a positivity of three percent, according to the New York City Department of Health.
Under Cuomo’s directive, three zones are being created – red, orange and yellow – with red zones being neighborhoods where COVID – 19 has seen positivity rates of at least three percent. Orange zones are neighborhoods next the red zones. Next to orange zones are yellow zones.
In orange zones, attendance at religious services is restricted to 33 percent capacity, 25 people maximum. In yellow zones, the capacity will be capped at 50 percent.
Mayor Bill de Blasio released a list of the red and orange zones on Oct. 7, along with a caveat that parts of some neighborhoods straddle both red and orange.
In Brooklyn, the red and orange zones are: Borough Park, Kensington, Bensonhurst, Midwood, Flatlands, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach, Sunset Park, Bergen Beach and parts of Brighton Beach and Coney Island.
The Queens neighborhoods are: Kew Gardens, Briarwood/Jamaica, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona, Forest Hills, Edgemere/Far Rockaway, Arverne.
In addition to his objections to the governor’s order, Bishop DiMarzio said Cuomo didn’t reach out to him before making the announcement to give him a heads-up. “I felt disrespected,” he said.
In a press conference on Oct. 6, the governor stated that in addition to closing all schools in those nine zip code areas, he was instituting strict new guidelines on attendance at religious services in those and other neighborhoods.
“Now, we’ve reduced the number of people in houses of worship. I have no problem politically enforcing it,” Cuomo said.
For now, the governor said he is permitting religious institutions to remain open. But on Oct. 5, he suggested the possibility of closing them down if they flout safety rules.
“If you do not agree to follow the rules, then we will close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that,” Cuomo said.
Cuomo’s restrictions cover a wider area than envisioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio who had sought the state’s permission to place restrictions on nine ZIP code areas in Brooklyn and Queens that have seen spikes in COVID-19 cases.
The ZIP codes are: Edgemere/Far Rockaway (11691), Borough Park (11219), Bensonhurst/Mapleton (11204),Gravesend/Homecrest (11223), Midwood (11230), Flatlands/Midwood (11210), Gerritsen Beach/Homecrest/Sheepshead Bay (11229), Kew Gardens (11415), and Kew Gardens Hills/Pomonok (11367).
The flurry of decisions coming from the mayor and governor aren’t sitting well with Catholics, who charged that religious institutions are being unfairly targeted.
“It’s ridiculous. It absolutely makes no sense,” said Joseph Esposito, a parishioner of St. Athanasius Church, Bensonhurst, a parish located in the 11204 ZIP code area.
Esposito, a former commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management, chaired a committee organized in by Bishop DiMarzio in the spring to develop a plan to safely reopen churches in the diocese once Cuomo allowed churches to reopen following a months-long shutdown.
Churches were closed from March until May, when they were permitted to reopen for private prayer. Weekday Masses resumed in June. Sunday Masses resumed in July. The plan put together by Esposito’s committee includes limiting seating to 25 percent capacity in churches, adhering to social distancing and mandatory wearing of face masks.
“We go out of our way to make sure it is safe. The churches have been doing the right thing. We are being punished for our hard work. And why this is being done by zip code makes no sense. What if you live in one neighborhood and go to church in another?” Esposito told The Tablet.
Church leaders reacted with shock to the governor’s comments about the possibility of closing religious institutions.
“We have been following the rules. We have been doing everything to keep our parishioners safe,” said Father José López, administrator of Holy Spirit Parish, Borough Park. “We have signs around the church to remind parishioners of the rules. I appointed six people to spray hand sanitizer when people enter. It would be very hard on us if we had to close now.”
Fr. William With, pastor of Resurrection Church, Gerritsen Beach, said closing his church at this point in time would be a spiritual hardship as well as a practical hardship on his parishioners.
“The sacramental celebrations are so important. It is essential that we stay open,” he told the Tablet.
His parishioners are “just starting to come back” after seeing their church closed for several months, he said. “We have not fully recovered. They are coming back slowly but surely. It would be a bad sign for our people if we had to close now.”