BENSONHURST —In the wake of his decision to close all schools in nine ZIP code areas in Brooklyn and Queens that have become hot spots for COVID-19, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced new restrictions on houses of worship on Oct. 6.
In a press conference, the governor stated that in addition to closing all schools in those nine zip code areas, he was instituting strict new guidelines on attendance at religious services in those and other neighborhoods.
Cuomo announced that New York State was establishing three zones, red, orange, and yellow, each with different levels of restrictions. The hot spots where there have been troubling increases in COVID-19 cases will constitute a red zone, where religious services would operate with a limit of 10 people.
The next zone over will be an orange zone, where churches and religious institutions will be permitted to have 25 people at a service. A third zone, a yellow zone, will be allowed to conduct services with 50 percent capacity.
“Now, we’ve reduced the number of people in houses of worship. I have no problem politically enforcing it,” Cuomo said.
The Oct. 6 announcement came one day after Cuomo announced that schools in the nine zip codes would have to be closed and that he might have to close religious institutions.
The other ZIP codes are: Edgemere/Far Rockaway (11691), Borough Park (11219), Bensonhurst/Mapleton (11204),Gravesend/Homecrest (11223), Midwood (11230), Flatlands/Midwood (11210), Gerritsen Beach/Homecrest/Sheepshead Bay (11229), Kew Gardens (11415), and Kew Gardens Hills/Pomonok (11367).
That isn’t sitting well with Catholics, who charged that the governor is unfairly painting everyone with a broad brush, even churches that are following strict social distancing rules.
“It’s ridiculous. It absolutely makes no sense,” said Joseph Esposito, a parishioner of St. Athanasius Church, Bensonhurst, a parish located in the 11204 ZIP code area.
Esposito, a former commissioner of the New York City Office of Emergency Management, chaired a committee organized last spring by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio to develop a plan to safely reopen churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn once Cuomo allowed churches to reopen.
Churches were closed from March until May when they were permitted to reopen for private prayer. Weekday Masses resumed in June, Sunday Masses resumed in July. The plan put together by Esposito’s committee includes limiting seating to 25 percent capacity in churches, adhering to social distancing, and mandatory wearing of face masks.
“We go out of our way to make sure it is safe. The churches have been doing the right thing. We are being punished for our hard work. And why this is being done by ZIP code makes no sense. What if you live in one neighborhood and go to church in another?” Esposito told The Tablet.
For now, the governor is permitting religious institutions to remain open in the nine ZIP code hotspots. But he suggested the possibility of closing them down if they flout safety rules.
“If you do not agree to follow the rules, then we will close the institutions down. I am prepared to do that,” Cuomo said on Oct. 5.
Church leaders in the affected ZIP codes reacted with shock to the governor’s comments.
“We have been following the rules. We have been doing everything to keep our parishioners safe,” said Father José López Castillo, administrator of Holy Spirit Parish, Borough Park. “We have signs around the church to remind parishioners of the rules. I appointed six people to spray hand sanitizer when people enter. It would be very hard on us if we had to close now.”
Father William With, pastor of Resurrection Church, Gerritsen Beach, said closing his church at this point would be a spiritual hardship as well as a practical hardship on his parishioners.
“The sacramental celebrations are so important. It is essential that we stay open,” he told The Tablet.
His parishioners are “just starting to come back” after seeing their church closed for several months, he said. “We have not fully recovered. They are coming back slowly but surely. It would be a bad sign for our people if we had to close now.”
Priscilla Consolo, a parishioner of Our Lady of Grace Church, Gravesend, said she felt confident that the churches will not have to close. “I think the important thing to remember is that the Diocese of Brooklyn and the parishes are taking the COVID-19 pandemic very seriously. As long as the diocese and the parishes continue to follow the rules, I don’t think it should be a problem,” she told The Tablet.
She is concerned, however, by the use of zip code areas to determine which institutions remain open and which ones are forced to close. “Zip codes do not adequately define neighborhoods or communities,” she said.
The story has been updated.