As Texas and Mississippi Lift COVID Restrictions, Bishops Voice Caution

In this 2015 file photo, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks in Washington during the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast. (Photo: Tyler Orsburn/CNS)

NEW YORK — Catholic prelates in Texas and Mississippi will, for the most part, maintain COVID-19 precautions at their parishes despite recent announcements from each state’s governors that restrictions will ease.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced earlier this week that the state will be 100 percent open, without masks or any other COVID-19 mandates, on March 10.

The easing is more complex in Mississippi, with some capacity limits still in effect. However, the state-imposed mask mandate is history as of March 3. As Gov. Tate Reeves put it at a recent press conference, “the governor’s office is getting out of the business of telling people what they can and cannot do.”

Bishops in both states are taking a more cautious line.

“For me, it’s premature to be removing masks,” Bishop Joseph Kopacz of Jackson told The Tablet. “This creates a bit of pressure within, for example, our Catholic world because you start to hear the drum beat of people saying, ‘well, I’ve been vaccinated and the governors lifted the masks so I don’t need to wear my mask to church.”

Bishop Kopacz said he “feels strongly” that it’s important to maintain the current protocols in the Diocese of Jackson parishes that have worked so far. These include masks, social distancing, the use of hand sanitizer, no gatherings before or after Mass, and communion in the hand only.

Dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass will also stay in place out of consideration “for people who would love to be there but are concerned about their health so they don’t have that weighing on their conscience,” Bishop Kopacz said.

Though there is no requirement, the state of Mississippi asks churches to consider not exceeding 50 percent of maximum capacity. Other places, such as indoor arenas, are allowed 50 percent maximum capacity. Extracurricular activities at both private and public schools will be limited to 50 percent capacity outdoors and 25 percent capacity indoors, according to state guidelines.

Bishop Kopacz doesn’t have a date set when parishes will ease restrictions. But he said as more and more people get vaccinated, it’s something that he will consider.

“I could see some of the protocols loosing up but not all of them. I think the social distancing is going to be in place for the long haul. The sanitizing, the communion in the hand,” Bishop Kopacz said. “At some point will the mask mandate be optional? I can see that being eased down the road but it’s too premature to do that now.”

In Mississippi’s other diocese, the Diocese of Biloxi, Bishop Louis Kihneman has directed his parishes to continue masks, handwashing and social distancing. In contrast to Bishop Kopacz, Bishop Kihneman announced he will end the dispensation from attending Mass on March 27, except for non-vaccinated people over the age of 60 or with underlying health conditions.

Prelates in Texas have for the most part chosen to err on the side of caution as well. The dioceses of El Paso, Fort Worth, Brownsville, San Angelo and Victoria; and the Archdiocese of San Antonio have announced existing protocols that include masks, social distancing, sanitizing and capacity limits, also the dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass will continue.

In the diocese of Beaumont, Bishop David Toups announced Friday that parishes will maintain a mask mandate and the dispensation. However, each pastor has the ability to eliminate limitations in church seating, as long as some of the church remains reserved for social distancing.

Parishioners in the diocese of Beaumont can also receive communion on the tongue.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler has asked parishioners to continue to be vigilant against the virus, but has lifted all COVID-19 mandates. All pews may open and masks will not be required.

The dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass will also be lifted except for special circumstances such as those in the high-risk category for COVID-19, if you care for the sick or homebound, or have a significant fear or anxiety of becoming ill by being at Mass.

Bishop Strickland said some locations may have more of a need to maintain protocols than others, and he’s “tried to give local priests the leeway to address their specific situation.”

In a statement, Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso noted that part of the reason his diocese will maintain COVID-19 protocols is that his diocese continues to see a high percentage of hospitalizations and many deaths, even as overall case numbers improve.

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth reminded parishioners that it’s important to look out for one another.

“It is our Christian responsibility to maintain our concern for others, especially those most vulnerable so that we attend Mass safely and contribute to the common good of our parishes and the larger community of our own towns, counties and state,” Bishop Olson said in a statement.