Governor continues to urge caution, follow public health guidelines; no change for restaurants and bars. Credit: Evan Frost | MPR News

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Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced new guidelines for religious services during a Saturday press briefing, allowing houses of worship to reopen at 25 percent occupancy while continuing to implore Minnesotans to follow public health recommendations.

Walz was joined by state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm, and they both cautioned that the state has not yet reached its peak for infection from COVID-19.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult over the next couple weeks.. It is my belief we are going to see some pretty rough weeks when we head to that peak no matter what we do,” Walz said during the nearly hour-long briefing.

But he said the new guidelines came after President Trump declared houses of worship essential institutions, after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance for religious servicves, and after state leaders consulted with Minnesota faith leaders. He also acknowledged that some may see contradictions in what he has allowed to open and what still remains closed — namely restaurants and bars. Walz also said there has been no change in restrictions barring large graduation gatherings.

“I say to the Minnesotans who find the contradictions maddening, so do I,” Walz said, noting that the new CDC guidelines only apply to places of worship.

Starting May 27, places of worship will be allowed to:

  • Open at 25 percent occupancy if they adhere to social distancing and other public health guidelines and specific requirements of each, including the posting of a plan.
  • The maximum event gathering size is 250 people for both indoor and outdoor services, which applies to both weddings and funerals. It does not include “related celebrations or social gatherings,’’ according to the guidelines.

Walz said the “250 number terrifies me,” but said the number and occupancy limits came about after many conversations with many faith leaders, including Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Bernard Hebda. Minnesota’s six dioceses announced last week they would permit parishes to resume public services during the pandemic if attendance was less than 33 percent of a building’s capacity.

In a statement Saturday, Hebda lauded Walz’s new guidelines.

“I am so thankful for the honest, open, and fast-paced dialogue we had over these past days and am pleased we could come to a consensus about a reasonable and safe path forward that allows a greater number of people to safely return to worship,” Hebda wrote.

Both Walz and Malcolm acknowledged the role faith and in-person services play in people’s mental health and said they worked to balance that against public health considerations.

“We at the health department certainly know that health is more than just the absence of physical disease. It’s all about well-being, and we know how important faith is to the well-being of Minnesotans,” Malcolm said.

Saturday’s news conference came as the state saw its greatest single-day increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases.