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Many Pittsburgh Houses Of Worship Wait To Open Due To Limits On Group Gatherings

Frank Franklin II

State Health Secretary Rachel Levine has stressed the importance of taking it slow when reopening businesses in Pennsylvania. “Yellow means caution,” she said at a recent press conference. That sentiment has been echoed by Pittsburgh’s religious groups grappling with whether or not to reopen their doors to worshippers.

Churches, synagogues, temples, mosques and other houses of worship can reopen under the yellow phase, but they must limit gatherings to fewer than 25 people. Most worship services exceed that number, which some worry could result in some people being turned away at the door.

That doesn’t fit with the philosophy of open doors and inclusivity, said several local religious leaders.

Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill said it will continue to offer its programs, classes and services on Zoom and through live streams. It moved these services online at the end of March.

“Keeping people safe and healthy and alive really is a paramount value in Judaism,” Rabbi Jamie Gibson said. “We’ve found that we’re actually able to create community – even though it’s a two-dimensional community – by being online.”

That two-dimensional community has actually resulted in growth for congregations like First Unitarian Church in Shadyside. A man who found First Unitarian’s services through their YouTube page recently wrote to Rev. Constance Grant to say her message resonated with him and that he hoped to connect in person once they reopen.

Grant said others have expressed appreciation for the ability to watch services when it’s more convenient for them, due to work schedules or other commitments. Grant said First Unitarian is considering making livestreams and recordings permanent offerings, even after they resume in-person gatherings.

That resumption might not take place for serveral months, said Grant. She and the board of trustees have decided to close their building through August 31, but may extend the closure even beyond that date.

When churches do return to in-person gatherings, there is more to consider than masks and hand sanitizer, said Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of the Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania. Legal liability is an unfortunate piece of the puzzle, she said.

“Nobody wants their church to be a vector for infection, because that’s the opposite of what church is supposed to be about,” she said. “Nobody wants anyone to get sick, or God forbid, die, because they tried to exercise their religious sensibilities or religious obligations.”

Barlow said many of the organization's more than 1,500 member churches are taking this time to plan their reopening strategies. The Islamic Center of Pittsburgh is doing the same. Mohcine Eljoufri, the center’s director, said many Muslims are eager to return to some form of in-person service.

“You’re going to say ‘no’ to some people and those people are going to feel some type of way,” he said regarding resuming small group activities. There is also the awkward requirement of policing social-distancing guidelines in a place of worship, Eljoufri said.  

The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh began a gradual reopening of its churches May 15, the day Allegheny County moved into the yellow phase.

“The Commonwealth will continually evaluate the reopening process and make necessary adjustments county-by-county. This means, our parishes throughout the diocese may be in different phases of reopening at any given time,” the diocese said in a statement.

The diocese plans to resume daily in-person mass services June 1 and weekend mass June 6 and 7. More details about those services are expected soon.

The Pittsburgh Buddhist Center in Natrona Heights plans to open for in-person services at the end of June. But for now, Bhante Permaratana, the chief abbot, said the center will continue offering meditation and teaching programs through their YouTube channel and Zoom meetings.  

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.