Here in the orange zone, it’s difficult to go to Mass on Sunday. Fearing that COVID-19’s terrifying springtime spread through Brooklyn and Queens could return, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order restricting attendance at religious services in certain neighborhoods, including mine. Just twenty-five people can attend.
The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn filed suit in federal court over this, presenting what a judge called very difficult issues: Cuomo’s order explicitly restricts houses of worship, raising First Amendment alarms. But at the same time, Cuomo said, infections were spiking once again, particularly in Brooklyn’s large ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Borough Park. It’s the core of the red zone, where worship is restricted to no more than ten people. The orange zone is intended as a buffer. In yellow zones, houses of worship can fill to 50 percent of capacity. While they concede there is no evidence that Catholic parishes have contributed to the spread of the disease, public-health officials say it’s necessary to prevent large public gatherings at which a single person, perhaps asymptomatic, could spread the disease to many people.
Religious groups have filed dozens of lawsuits across the country asserting that pandemic-related restrictions violate the First Amendment’s free-exercise clause. Each suit arises from different circumstances, but they share the important principle of protecting a foundational American right. Still, as a resident of the orange zone, I can’t say that the new restrictions were a terrible imposition on me because Mass was easily available nearby in the yellow zone.
“The fate of literally thousands of Catholic parishioners and whether they will be able to attend Mass come Sunday hangs in the balance,” the diocese’s lawyer, Randy Mastro, a former deputy mayor to Rudolph Giuliani, warned in the first hearing for the Brooklyn diocese’s case. It was unfair, he argued, that Costco could be open for business (permitted because it sells groceries) on the same day.
My parish was one of twenty-six affected by the order, but there are 186 parishes in the diocese. For the Sunday Mastro referred to, I decided not to try to be one of the twenty-five people at my parish. (And no, I didn’t go to Costco instead.) Two yellow-zone parishes were both a five-minute drive away. I ended up taking a twenty-minute drive to a parish that celebrated Mass outdoors—a rarity in our diocese, where the chancery has permitted but not encouraged the practice.