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Dane County health officials modify order after Diocese action

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MADISON, Wis. — Dane County health officials are making a modification to a public health order after action this week from the Catholic Diocese of Madison, according to a news release.

Public Health of Madison and Dane County announced Friday morning that it is changing the county-wide order. The order now allows churches to have services with up to 25% of their capacity. Officials said the previous order that was put in place to reduce the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak from occurring where people gather had allowed churches to have as many services as they wanted, but asked that attendees be capped at 50 parishioners per service.

In a statement released at noon Friday, Bishop Donald Hying said Diocese leaders were pleased that the county changed the order.

“As bishop, it is my duty to ensure that Sunday Mass be available as widely as possible to the Catholic faithful, while following best practices when it comes to public health,” Hying said. “Indeed, in a time of deep division, it is more important than ever for the Church to provide solace and comfort to all, in the great tradition of American religious freedom.”

He also said the Diocese would work with the city and county to “continue the reopening process in a safe, cooperative, and responsible manner.”

Attorneys representing the Diocese sent a letter to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and Public Health Madison & Dane County Director Janel Heinrich on Wednesday, stating that the Forward Dane plan’s 50-person limit for mass was “discriminatory.”

Dane County’s reopening plan originally listed places of worship as an essential service, meaning churches could reopen at a 25% limited capacity. But an emergency order issued on May 22 limited places of worship to 50 people or less.

Parisi said the county changed the order related to churches was to “avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars on costly legal proceedings.” He said the money would be better spent by the county continuing work in providing basic needs for families affected by COVID-19 and to counteract the affects the virus has had on the economy.

“Basic life needs – food, shelter, and clothing – are in such high demand in our community given the current pandemic, so it’s hard to imagine the best use of parishioner or taxpayer dollars right now is in a court room,” Parisi said in a statement Friday. “While the request of the Catholic Bishop of Madison raises a legal gray area, the public health science here is anything but unclear: COVID-19 is here, infecting more people every day and minimizing contact in large group settings is an incredibly effective approach to staying healthy.”

On Friday, Dane County has more than 800 positive COVID-19 cases, and the state of Wisconsin surpassed 20,000 cases Thursday.

Parisi said the county has invested $6 million in local emergency food pantries and at least $4.5 million more to provide hotels and housing for over 420 homeless individuals since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak over the past several weeks.

PHMDC said it strongly recommends that faith and spiritual organizations continue to provide virtual services as the safest and recommended practice.

Rhodes-Conway said she appreciated the number of religious denominations that are being mindful of the risk of congregating large groups in enclosed spaces.

“The intent of this order was to reduce the risk of a flare-up of COVID-19 occurring in churches that could quickly overwhelm Public Health contact tracing and our healthcare systems,” she said in a statement.

Under Emergency Order #4, which PHMDC said takes effect immediately Friday, Dane County remains in Phase 1 of the Forward Dane plan. Order #4 clarification with respect to religious services. Religious worship services will no longer be categorized as a “mass gathering.” The restrictions applicable to businesses continue to apply to religious services. Restrictions include developing and implementing written hygiene, cleaning, and protective measure policies and procedures.