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Churches stay online after governor says up to 10 worshippers can gather

As Long Island plans to slowly reopen its economy as the coronavirus eases, churchgoers are looking forward to attending services again, with safety precautions put in place. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman; Debbie Egan-Chin

Many Long Island churches stuck to online services to protect the faithful on the first Sunday the state allowed up to 10 worshippers to congregate amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

At First Baptist Cathedral of Westbury, the church continued to livestream its Sunday service with a small crew in attendance to put on the service, Bishop Lionel Harvey said.

"The health and welfare of my people is most important," Harvey said. "We'll continue to do livestreaming, social media, until the science lines up with ensuring my people will be protected."

Some parishioners, meanwhile, were eager to have in-person services start again.

"I can’t wait," said Jose Dominguez, 83, of Rockville Centre, waiting outside St. Agnes Roman Catholic Cathedral in Rockville Centre on Sunday morning. "I think it’s supposed to be open, even if we have limitations." 

The cathedral held two drive-in Masses in its school parking lot Sunday.

At St. Philip Neri Roman Catholic Church in Northport, Anne Marie Kelly, 82, said she goes to church every day to pray. But she wants to see Masses resume again.

"I’m excited to have the sacrament," she said. "I’ve got no problem with it. I never had a problem."

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last week announced that up to 10 worshippers could gather for religious services as COVID-19 cases have decreased and pressure on the hospital system has eased. But he warned that people should continue to socially distance, including wearing masks when in public and staying six feet apart when possible. Cuomo appointed an interfaith advisory council to discuss how to safely hold in-person services.

Harvey, appointed to the task force, said the group would convene Tuesday to discuss a "smart, safe, systematic way for opening up broader."

"Right now, it's not smart," he said, "especially with the impact the virus has taken on black and brown churches." He estimated that 10 to 15 pastors he knows have died from COVID-19.

Harvey said he has been looking for a large tent to set up in the parking lot, to possibly hold services.

Online services have been held weekly since mid-March and have attracted a robust online following. A telephone service is held every morning during the week. 

"Everything around us is upside down. Everything has changed. What our church needed to be was sustainable consistency," he said.

The Rev. Andrew Branch, pastor of Naomi Temple AME Zion in Roosevelt, said he continued to broadcast an online service from his attic.

"We’re going to continue with our services online. We have a lot of older members in the congregation and don’t want to take that health risk," he said.

He said the response to the online services has been positive. Some members who moved out of state have been able to participate, and he gets texts from younger people about the service that shows they are watching.

"It’s an opportunity to try new things. I'm pretty sure when we deem it safe to go back, we'll do some type of hybrid, in person and online."

With Debbie Egan-Chin and Raychel Brightman

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