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After California ruling, some are worshipping indoors, others still think it’s too risky

'We’re going to hold on until we feel better about it,' said the Rev. Austin Doran, of St. Anthony Catholic Church in Los Angeles County.

The Supreme Court is seen at sundown in Washington on Nov. 6, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(RNS) — As much as the Rev. Austin Doran would like for his parish to meet indoors, at this time, it’s just not feasible, he said.

“We’re really excited about the prospect of bringing our services back inside. We miss our physical home, but there isn’t the confidence within the community or in my heart to bring us in there right now,” said Doran, pastor at St. Anthony Catholic Church in the city of San Gabriel in Los Angeles County.

“There is too much danger right now,” he added.

Since California changed its guidelines for houses of worship following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Feb. 5 that lifted a ban on indoor services, some religious leaders have opened their churches, mosques and temples to worshippers, but many others are choosing to continue congregating outdoors and online. The ruling limits attendance to 25% of a building’s capacity and restricts singing and chanting inside.

Before the decision, indoor worship services were forbidden in purple-tiered counties — those considered to be at widespread risk of coronavirus transmission. This tier accounts for a majority of the state. California churches were allowed to reopen in late May with attendance limitations but, along with other businesses, were once again shuttered in much of the state in July as COVID-19 cases surged.

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For some faith leaders whose churches have been hard-hit by the pandemic — as St. Anthony’s has — it’s still too risky to gather indoors. 

The church, for the past two months, has hosted outdoor Mass for at least one COVID-19 funeral every week. Congregants at St. Anthony’s are largely Spanish-speaking and working-class Latinos who have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. Doran has seen relatives of parishioners, of church volunteers and staff die after being infected with the virus.

“We’re going to hold on until we feel better about it,” Doran said.

Doran, along with other religious leaders in L.A. County, has been pushing for the county to make the vaccine more accessible in hard-hit communities like El Monte, where a number of his parishioners live. Doran, who has been vaccinated, is stressing that getting the vaccine is an “act of charity.” Many, he said, are still hesitant to get it.

Meanwhile, St. Anthony’s continues to have a presence online and hosts seven outdoor services on weekends, with about 450 people attending Saturday and Sunday. He did, however, notice an upswing in attendance last Sunday.

St. Anthony Catholic Church in the city of San Gabriel in Los Angeles County. Photo courtesy Google Maps

St. Anthony Catholic Church in the city of San Gabriel in Los Angeles County. Photo courtesy Google Maps

For now, even though it gets a little cold during the outdoor 6:30 a.m. Sunday service, Doran said they’re OK with holding weekend outdoor worship service.

Here in California, he said, “we’re blessed with so much decent weather.”

At Water of Life Community Church, a megachurch in the city of Fontana in San Bernardino County, the Supreme Court ruling won’t impact its worship services since the congregation has been meeting indoors since October even though the state had forbidden it.

Currently, about 800 worshippers congregate inside the Water of Life sanctuary which can seat about 3,200 people. Virtual and outdoor worship services are also available. Masks are mandated for indoor and outdoor services.

Water of Life Community Church pastor Dan Carroll feels it’s safe for congregants to sing inside because they wear masks. The church singers and pastors on stage do so without masks since the platform is about 45 feet away from people, he said. They also keep their distance from each other.

The non-denominational church, which has a staff of about 300 people, has seen about 30 to 45 of its staff members infected with the virus, but Carroll said, “we don’t know of any person that has gotten sick at our worship services.” Carroll said the church has paid for a COVID-19 testing trailer once a week to have its staff voluntarily tested when coronavirus cases are particularly high in the area. In early December, an associate pastor at the church died after he was diagnosed with COVID-19. The church said he got sick while he was on vacation out of state. 

“We just try to be safe,” Carroll said.

Carroll said the church has also had small groups of masked congregants meet in backyards or inside large buildings while wearing masks. Church staff inside the campus are also asked to wear masks at all times, unless they are alone in their offices.

“We’re trying to just keep moving forward and keep opening up every opportunity we have,” Carroll said.

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For Rabbi Jason Rosner, of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, they’ll continue to exclusively meet online like they have since the beginning of the pandemic. The L.A. County temple has so far only held one outdoor socially distanced gathering but continues to host weekly virtual services as well as informal Zoom hangouts Sunday afternoons.

“We opted from the beginning to take a quite protective and conservative stance, putting health at the front, according to religious tradition,” Rosner said.

“Expectation management is everything with crisis,” he added added.

Rosner said they recently met to discuss what to do for the Jewish holiday of Purim at the end of February, and “we couldn’t even agree to meet socially distanced outside.

“The pandemic is still going on; not everyone is vaccinated,” he said. “We have people with various positions about the vaccine, and we have a lot of people with pre-existing conditions. We’re not in a position to do this safely until everyone is vaccinated.”

Rosner said some of their members contracted the virus and have recovered.

To Rosner, if there is a choice between saving someone’s life and observing a ritual, “you have to save someone’s life.”

“That’s the principle, because according to Judaism, the rules and rituals are given to us to teach us to live better lives, not to kill us,” he said.

At the Islamic Center of San Diego, Thursday (Feb. 11) was the first time worshippers gathered inside the mosque for prayer since last September, said Imam Taha Hassane.

To meet the 25% capacity guidelines, the mosque required worshippers to reserve their spots online. Masks are required, and each person has to bring their own prayer rugs. Temperatures would be taken at the door.

Previously, prayers took place outside at the Islamic center’s courtyard. The mosque held virtual prayers and lectures online and will continue to do so for those who can’t attend indoor worship.

Although the Islamic center did experience some deaths from COVID-19, Hassane said they were not struck the same way as communities in L.A. County.

Hassane said the pandemic has taught them to not take anything for granted.

“Whether it’s our health, whether it’s having access to our places of worship in person … we have to value and to appreciate and to be grateful and thankful all the time.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.