Nevada’s churches, synagogues and mosques have returned to significantly reduced attendance limits under Gov. Steve Sisolak’s latest COVID-19 order, a step backward that local clergy members call disappointing but not surprising.
Particularly dismaying for Christian clergy is that what Sisolak describes as a three-week pause will be in effect during Advent, the four-week period that precedes Christmas, and will — or won’t — end just 10 days before Christmas, complicating the planning of holiday services.
“There’s an air of disappointment in this,” said Monsignor Gregory Gordon, chancellor for the Catholic Diocese of Las Vegas.
Gordon said “most of us were praying” that churches would be spared from a reduction of the 250-person attendance limit that had been in effect since early October because houses of worship “really have not been places of contagion or spread.”
Sisolak’s order took effect Tuesday. Under it, public gatherings, including church services, are limited to 50 people or 25 percent of occupancy allowed under the fire code, whichever is less, for at least the next three weeks.
Cutting from 250 to 50 “is going to be very challenging for many parishes,” Gordon said, particularly because area priests already have started to prepare Christmas Mass schedules and events. Gordon expects parishes to use strategies that were put in place earlier during the pandemic when attendance also was limited to 50.
Among those strategies are using secondary spaces such as gyms and parish halls to host live or streaming Masses of 50 people. Worshippers will continue to be required to follow diocesan health and safety protocols — including social distancing and wearing face masks — and to register to attend live Masses.
But with live attendance now reduced from 250 to 50, live weekend Mass will become even more of a hot ticket as Advent begins Sunday and Christmas approaches.
At 250, “we were able to accommodate almost everyone,” Gordon said. “But now, at 50, every Mass will be at capacity, usually by Tuesday.”
Starting this weekend, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will attend Sunday services on alternating Sundays, according to Douglas Hedger, president of the Henderson Black Mountain Stake. Most wards will be able to gather in two or three groups that will alternate attendance at public worship each week.
“We are not able to all meet together in (a single) group, but we still will be able to have in-person worship, which is a critical part of our church,” Hedger said.
Even with the attendance restriction, “we are grateful … to at least be able to gather together.”
Athar Haseebullah, chairman of Masjid Ibrahim, said reverting to a 50-worshipper maximum is understandable but “incredibly frustrating. It makes it hard to plan.”
But, he said, “the beauty of having done this before is, we are prepared to pivot back to where we were.”
With social distancing, Masjid Ibrahim can accommodate just over 100 for Friday prayers, Haseebullah said. “We’ve been getting between 80 and 90 consistently, and we still stream services virtually.”
“There’s going to be a challenge,” he said, but “hopefully, that three-week period will, in fact, be a three-week period.”
Rabbi Shea Harlig said Chabad of Southern Nevada has been seating congregants in two separate rooms in separate buildings for services. That strategy will continue under the latest attendance reduction.
Harlig said that more frustrating than managing the reduction is that the pandemic is “ongoing.”
“The more challenging part is trying to keep everyone safe as possible and also be there for the people who need it,” Harlig said.
The Rev. Paul Marc Goulet of the International Church of Las Vegas is disappointed by the latest mandate, calling it “discriminatory” because it holds churches to tighter restrictions than casinos and restaurants.
Goulet said his sanctuary seats 3,000 and, with social distancing, can accommodate many more than 50 people.
“This is a big issue, a big decision he made (Sunday) that has some negative consequences,” Goulet said, including the costs of social isolation and “long-term financial and spiritual health.”
One church that won’t have to adjust to the new standard is First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Las Vegas, which has not offered live services since the pandemic’s start. The Rev. Karen Anderson said that will remain true throughout December and at Christmas.
“We are still planning (for Christmas) but we are planning, as we have done, online worship,” she said. “The priority for me is the health of the congregation.”
Ministering amid the pandemic is “extremely challenging, even for the faith community,” she said. “We have faith, but we’re still human. We get anxious, we want to hurry up. But …. (what) happens in the Bible is, people have to wait. So we have to be patient, waiting but still doing the work of the church, to give hope.”