Churches prepare for Holy Week: ‘They’re really ready to get back to life without COVID’

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Rochester area churches are promising safety, and trusting their congregations, as coronavirus numbers surge ahead of their holiest time of the year, Easter.

On Wednesday, Monroe County reported 311 new confirmed cases and 384 positive home COVID tests there are currently 69 people in Finger Lakes Hospitals due to COVID or complications of COVID and 107 COVID-positive people who were admitted for other reasons.

As Saint John the Evangelist Church in Greece got together Wednesday night for an appropriately timed "healing mass" the statues were shrouded for the solemn Holy Week and a few members of the congregation were covered too, in masks, as large crowds are expected in churches for Easter, some of whom haven’t been in the pews since Christmas.

"They come to visit the family during Christmas,” said Fr. Pius Pathmarajah as he prepared to celebrate the mass. “They come to visit the family during Easter."

Do they come to church safely?

"Generally, yes,” he said.

Health leaders urged continued precautions Wednesday.

“We’re going to have to continue to keep our guard up on this, for, probably, years to come,” warned Robert Mayo, Chief Medical Officer with Rochester Regional Medicine.

With COVID numbers surging, Rochester’s Catholic diocese reports it’s urging local churches to follow official guidance for COVID safety but leaving it up to each parish.

Saint John’s Pastor Fr. Peter Enyan-Boadu said he has his mask and he’s urging the congregation to wear masks, be vaccinated, and use discretion, but to come and join their church family.

"A lot has gone on in our world,” he explained. “Not only COVID but isolation, depression, the economy, spiritual laxity. People want to feel connected."

"We are all tired,” agreed Rev. Rickey Harvey, Pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church. “But we are not so tired that we walk away from the precautionary measures that it takes."

Mount Olivet Baptist has worked COVID precautions in everywhere, from temperature checks, to hand sanitizer, to hundreds of easily available COVID tests in the sanctuary. It has ramped up for Holy Week too with a daily 5 a.m. service, streamed.

Harvey hopes online services will mitigate some Easter crowding but he says the congregation won’t be kept out for the sake of social distancing.

"People are glad to have an opportunity, really to come back into the large worship experiences where a lot of people are gathering,” he said. “This is our tradition."

As Saint Johns the Evangelist prepares for Easter, members like Michael Maher say they’re prepared to focus on devotion, instead of disease.

"Even the older people are comfortable," Maher said as he carried a fresh load of Easter lilies. "And they’re really ready to get back to life without COVID… even with the numbers."

Mayo also said these COVID surges will likely become a regular occurrence.