MEXICO CITY -- Temperatures taken and anti-bacterial gel applied, the faithful passed through a disinfecting arch set up in front of centuries-old wood-and-stone doors. Inside, they sat spaced out on pews while robed priests donned face masks. In another church, a glass partition separated people from the altar.
Mexico City's Roman Catholic churches, including its main cathedral, recently began celebrating Mass again after three months of pandemic lockdown with a "new normal" that seemed to have more rules than faithful in the pews.
"I felt a great need and that is why I came, to ask that all that is happening pass," Hermelinda Olivares, 53, said in a church in southern Mexico City where barely a dozen people listened to a priest pray for coronavirus patients, health-care workers and the dead.
Most said they were just happy their churches were open again and felt it was important to take physical Holy Communion.
Some protested that authorities had taken too long to allow churches to reopen. "They let the supermarkets stay open but kept us closed until today, so here we are," said Mónica Robleda, sitting alone on a pew far from anyone else.
Federal authorities left the decision -- on whether places of worship could open -- to state governments and city councils. As of Wednesday, Mexico had topped 493,000 confirmed new coronavirus cases and more than 53,000 deaths.
Before reopening, Masses were held in some parts of Mexico outside the capital with similar sanitary measures, while in other parts, religious services remain virtual.
The clergy has been hard hit by the pandemic. According to a count by the Catholic Multimedia Center, 46 priests, six deacons and three nuns had died of covid-19 as of mid-July.
Some churches, such as the Evangelical ones in Mexico's capital, decided to wait for the number of infections to go down further before opening, despite official authorization. Mexico's Episcopal Conference said each priest should assess the situation in his parish before resuming services.
"The options we chose -- both parishioners and priests -- must be taken with special care to preserve health and life," said Cardinal Carlos Aguiar, the archbishop of Mexico City.
While the capital's iconic cathedral lacked its habitual tourists on a recent Sunday, it offered modern pandemic options such as being able to give alms through a QR code that can be read by smartphones although nobody appeared to use it.
About 500 faithful gathered July 26 at the Basilica of Guadalupe, only a small part of the 5,000 that could be hosted by the north Mexico City basilica, a destination of one of the largest Catholic pilgrimages in the world.
One in five of Mexico's confirmed coronavirus cases has been registered in the capital and Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum has threatened to return to a stricter lockdown if a worrying increase in infections continues.
"Everything is a risk but you have to live," said Luis López, 68.
Sheinbaum has said that temples should remain closed in neighborhoods that are still on high alert for infections. Churches that do open must impose sanitary measures such as face masks, that ceremonies not last longer than half an hour and that church occupancy not exceed 20%.
In a middle-class neighborhood in southern Mexico City, Salvador Sánchez stood at the door of the Parish of San Juan Evangelista making sure those measures were respected. Besides taking temperatures and applying anti-bacterial gel, the 62-year-old counted how many parishioners entered.
"I am happy but concerned that not all people cooperate and that is why the infections continue," said Sánchez, who has lost two friends thus far to the pandemic.