Cuomo says churches can reopen, with limit of 10 attendees

 ALBANY — Religious services can resume Thursday in New York, though a limit of 10 attendees is being imposed by the Cuomo administration.

Participants must wear masks and social distancing protocols must be followed, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at his latest pandemic update.

Formal guidelines for those services are expected to be issued soon by a statewide council of interfaith advisors.

The New York State Catholic Conference, reacting to the Cuomo announcement, said through spokesman Dennis Poust that New York's bishops "will proceed slowly and responsibly and collaboratively" in bringing congregations back to Masses and other services.

“Today brings good news for people of faith, and we’re grateful that Gov. Cuomo has acknowledged the importance of religious faith and practice, especially now in this time of pandemic," Poust said,

“Our Catholic people are hungry for the Mass and are anxious to gather together again in prayer and worship," Poust added. "At the same time, we have a moral obligation to protect our congregations and our clergy from COVID-19."

Drive-in services and those convened in parking lots can also be held, Cuomo said at the statehouse Wednesday.

Noting he once served as an altar boy, Cuomo said that when so many New Yorkers are dealing with high levels of stress, going to church can be "very comforting."

"We need to find out how to do it, and how to do it safely and smartly," Cuomo said.

Clergy leaders had been clamoring for clarity on when the services can be restarted, noting they had gone unmentioned in Cuomo's plans for reopening New York.

Earlier this week, Cuomo had said church services were being included in the same category as "large gatherings," which includes festivals and rock concerts, events that appear to be a month or longer away from resuming.

Jason McGuire, director of New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms, an evangelical Christian advocacy group that monitors state policy and legislation, said he was "encouraged" by Cuomo's announcement.

At the same time, however, McGuire contended it came with "some hypocrisy," noting Cuomo's press briefing was attended by some 20 people — double the number of people that would be allowed in churches under the governor's restrictions.

"In some cases, 10 people is not even two families," McGuire told CNHI.

"ASK PRESIDENT TRUMP"

Following the deaths of nearly 6,000 New Yorkers at state-regulated nursing homes, Cuomo defended his administration's decision on March 25 to order the facilities to accept patients returning to the homes from hospitals after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. Critics of that decision have argued the order helped spread the contagion among patients and staffers.

Cuomo has since reversed that policy. On Wednesday, he suggested those calling for a federal investigation into New York's nursing home policies reflects the fact it is a "political season."

Cuomo also said his administration was merely abiding by federal guidelines when it told the home operator they had to accept virus-positive patients..

"Anyone who wants to ask why did the state do that with COVID patients in nursing homes, it’s because the state followed President Trump’s CDC guidance," the governor said. "They should ask President Trump. I think that will top the conversation."

On a related front, the spread of the contagion in group homes housing developmentally disabled residents has prompted the state to develop strategies to counter the infection.

"We keep (employees) more restricted to the homes that they work in to be able to address this very issue," said Cuomo's top aide, Melissa DeRosa. "We’re also doing temperature checks and we’re looking at a whole host of other things that we’re going to implement."

DRAMA BUILDS OVER CASINOS

Still unknown is when non-Indian casinos and off-track betting parlors will get the green light from the state to open.

The Native American tribal casinos, such as the Seneca gaming facilities in Western New York, are not under the state's control, Cuomo noted.

The Oneida Indian Nation announced this week it is planning a June 10 reopening for the Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, Oneida County, and two smaller facilities, Yellow Brick Road Casino in Chittenango and Point Place Casino in Madison County.

The tribe said in a statement: “The determination to open on June 10th follows the Oneida Indian Nation’s careful monitoring of the reopening of businesses in Central New York, with specific attention to the metrics New York State and the local counties have published on a daily basis.”

Cuomo said decisions on reopening the non-tribal gaming facilities will be addressed on an "individual basis," acknowledging that there are concerns about curbing the spread of the contagion.

The shutting of those facilities has crimped a source of revenue for the state.

NEW HOSPITAL DATA

With much of the upstate region now experiencing a limiting reopening of businesses, new worrisome data showed an increase in hospitalizations Wednesday for Central New York and the Finger Lakes regions.

Cuomo downplayed the significance of the increase, noting that hospital admissions lag infections by approximately two weeks. He noted state experts review a range of benchmarks to determine whether the virus is gaining steam in a region following reopenings.

"We have not seen anything significant anywhere that is worth mentioning,” he said of the latest state data on infections and hospitalizations.

COURTS COMING BACK

Meanwhile, New York's court system announced that in-person courtroom proceedings will resume Thursday on a limited basis in Niagara County and other counties in western New York.

The Western New York region had met all of the state's safety benchmarks for reopening earlier this week.

Courts in most other upstate counties — including Clinton, Essex, Franklin, Otsego, Delaware, Schoharie and Chenango — resumed operations this week.

Since the pandemic reached New York in early March, there have been 179 cases of state court employees testing positive for COVID-10. Seventeen judges are among those who got the virus, Law360, a legal news web site, reported.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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