Houses of worship prepare for holidays - some in person, some online - amid COVID-19

The director of the National Institutes of Health on Thursday implored houses of worship to conduct services virtually amid the coronavirus surge, especially with holidays coming up.

In New Jersey, a variety of options are being used by religious institutions, ranging from in-person worship, to entirely virtual.

Christ Our Light Catholic Church in Cherry Hill is offering live-streamed masses on Saturdays and Sundays. They're also offering five in-person masses every weekend with every other pew roped off, ushers taking a headcount as people enter, masks and frequent sanitizing.

"We've also moved the distribution to the end of mass so that there's only one time when people are up and moving. And then they head right out at the end after they've received communion," said Cathy Johnson of Christ Our Light's reopening taskforce

Johnson said it's important to keep people safe - but also to worship in person.

"Worship is essentially a communal act. So, that when we gather Christ is made present,"

Anticipating a larger turnout for Christmas, Christ Our Light is adding five additional masses to the normal Christmas schedule, and they also have a gym for overflow.

Mary Mother of the Church in Bordentown is giving out tickets for Christmas masses and using assigned seats to ensure distancing.

In New Jersey, indoor religious activities are protected by the First Amendment and must be limited to 150 people, or 25% capacity.

In Pennsylvania, religious gatherings are exempt from the state's gathering restrictions, but mask-wearing and physical distancing is encouraged.

In Philadelphia, however, the city is restricting indoor religious gatherings to 5% capacity.

Recent Supreme Court rulings in California and New York have favored religious institutions challenging COVID-19 related restrictions on in-person worship.

Still, some congregations are all online.

Congregation Beth Tikvah in Medford has been virtual since March.

"We've gotten better at it as we've gone on." said Rabbi Nathan Weiner.

The congregation held one in-person event this year, a mobile Sukkah this fall. All other worship has been online. The congregation set a benchmark in the spring, using transmission data to determine when to resume in-person worship.

"I believe that upholding the sanctity of human life takes precedence over the desire to gather in person," said Weiner.
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