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Timing of reopening parishes uncertain, say archdiocesan officials

  • Pilot file photo/Gregory L. Tracy
  • From top left, Joe McEnness, MC Sullivan, Patrick Krisak and Sean Hickey lead a video conference April 20 for parish leaders and priests looking at the criteria that needs to met before the Archdiocese of Boston can begin the process of reopening parishes. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

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BRAINTREE -- In a video conference with priests and parish leaders, archdiocesan officials said April 20 that it is still uncertain when the time will be right to begin discussing reopening parishes for worship.

The video conference, also called a webinar, is expected to be the first of several such sessions to discuss eventual preparations to reopen schools and parishes. It was moderated by Patrick Krisak, director of Faith Formation and Missionary Discipleship, and Sean Hickey, assistant director for clergy personnel.

Cardinal Seán O'Malley opened the virtual event with a prayer and welcoming remarks.

The cardinal clarified that the archdiocese is "not in a position at this time to reopen our churches."

The goals of the meeting, he said, were to review updated information and recent state reports about the COVID-19 pandemic, and initiate discussion among parish staffs about how to reopen churches and restart programs when it is safe to do so.

"We believe that our Church and our society will emerge from this experience stronger and more committed than ever to sharing our faith," Cardinal O'Malley said.

MC Sullivan, the archdiocese's chief healthcare ethicist, gave a presentation on "Understanding the Present to Plan for the Future," in which she assessed the current state of the pandemic.

She recounted recent reports from Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, and Gov. Charlie Baker.

Citing Birx, Sullivan said that although social distancing has "flattened the curve," or slowed the increase of COVID-19 cases, that does not necessarily change the timeline of the curve -- in other words, when the number of cases will reach its peak.

"We won't know that we've reached the peak until we're beyond the peak," Sullivan said.

She pointed out the need for more diagnostic tests and testing for antibodies at both the federal and state levels. Currently, about 150,000 diagnostic tests are performed each day in the United States. For reopening to be safely considered, Sullivan said, 500,000 to 750,000 tests would need to be performed each day. The same ratio would apply for Massachusetts, where the daily number of tests currently sits between 1,000 and 2,000.

Sullivan also reviewed the White House's proposed criteria and guidelines for three phases of reopening at the state or regional level. According to this plan, if states meet the criteria, they could move on to subsequent phases, which would progressively lift restrictions and allow more people to gather in workplaces and public venues.

The circumstances required before phased opening can begin would include a downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses and COVID-like syndromic cases over a 14-day period. To move on to subsequent phases, there would need to be no evidence of a rebound or new outbreak of the disease. There would also be guidelines for individuals during all phases, such as practicing good hygiene and staying home when sick.

Joe McEnness, executive director of the archdiocese's Office of Risk Management, gave a presentation on what the process of reopening would look like for the archdiocese.

He said the phases implemented by the archdiocese may be slightly different than the state model due to the archdiocese's population, which consists of many elderly people, as well as the fact that the archdiocese is spread out over a large area.

Sullivan and McEnness both said to keep in mind the possibility that, even if reopening progresses, a resurgence of coronavirus cases could cause tighter restrictions on gatherings to be put back in place.

In the weeks to come, McEnness said, there will be additional webinars as Phase 1 of reopening approaches, and the Catholic Schools Office will hold a similar virtual presentation specific to schools.

"We need clear ideas, planning and guideposts around how the pandemic might continue," he said.

He reminded everyone that the 90-Day Now Initiative, which launched in March as a way for people to financially support their parishes during the pandemic, is "going strong" and yielding good results.

Information on the archdiocese's response to the COVID-19 pandemic can be found at rcabrisk.org/covid.

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