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NYC services go on with eye toward safety

by JAMES ESTRIN THE NEW YORK TIMES | November 15, 2020 at 3:50 a.m.

NEW YORK -- Religious services were shut down in New York City at the end of March and weren't allowed to resume until June. Since reopening, churches, synagogues and mosques throughout the city have mandated masks, limited the number of people in each service, employed strict cleaning regimens and abbreviated the length of services.

Those efforts, however, may no longer be enough. As the infection rate in the city rises, new restrictions may soon be put in place.

Emilio Artea, a beloved longtime deacon at St. Agatha's, a Roman Catholic church in Brooklyn, died from covid-19 on Good Friday this year. It was not until 10 days later that just a handful of priests and nuns were able to mark the occasion by reciting a single prayer over his coffin, in the middle of 49th Street.

"It was so painful," said the Rev. Vincentius Do, the church's pastor. "They brought the hearse in front of the church, we came out, said a prayer, sprinkled holy water and off he went."

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Like many other houses of worship in New York, St. Agatha's has reopened, with clergy and congregants a bit battered. They've adapted their centuries-old traditions in order to worship safely.

St. Agatha's had to close again after the March shutdown, on Oct. 9. The governor placed it in a "red zone" because of an increase in coronavirus cases in nearby neighborhoods -- although there had been only one known case in the parish in the previous month. The building was allowed to reopen two weeks later.

The Jewish Center, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan, didn't wait for the state -- it closed down a week before the March shutdown went into effect and didn't restart services until August.

"In Judaism, the preservation of life is of the highest priority, and that has to come before all other considerations," said Rabbi Yosie Levine, who has served at the synagogue since 2004.

The sanctuary at The Jewish Center accommodates more than 500 people, but only 60 are now allowed inside at a time. Attendees must preregister online, answer a coronavirus exposure survey and have their temperature taken at the door.

When weather permits, shortened services are held outside on the rooftop.

At the Dar Al-Dawah in Astoria, Queens, attendance has been limited to 64 people, and attendees bring their own prayer rugs that they set up in designated spots, 6 feet apart.

Since June, the mosque has added extra sessions on Friday of jummah, the most important prayer of the week, so that all who want to can pray in person.

At the door, temperatures are checked, and hand sanitizer is dispensed to the congregants, who must also wear masks.

Priests wearing white robes, surgical masks and plastic face guards continue to perform services, ceremonies and rituals at the Hindu Temple Society of North America, in Flushing, Queens, also known as the Ganesh Temple. Only 30 people are allowed inside at a time, and only for 15 minutes each. At the door, they are scanned by a wall-mounted infrared scanner that checks their temperature and whether they are wearing masks.

Worshippers are no longer allowed to touch the shrines of deities, and offerings cannot be directly handed to the priest. Since March, services have been also livestreamed daily.

Nineteen members of The Christian Cultural Center, a megachurch in Brooklyn, have died from covid-19, and hundreds more were infected, including the pastor, A.R. Bernard, who said he spent a week in the hospital in March "with every symptom imaginable."

After a month of quarantining at home, Bernard returned to work, broadcasting services on YouTube and Facebook that are viewed by tens of thousands of congregants.

Like many other large, predominantly Black churches in New York City, the Christian Cultural Center has not reopened its building since March because of deep concerns for the safety of congregants, Bernard said.

The virus has hit Black and Latino people in the city particularly hard, with their rate of death twice as high as it is for white people.

The church plans to broadcast services through the end of the year, Bernard said. And, since it first began the giving recorded services, they have evolved into "a much better interpretation of our worship experience," he said.


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