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Prayers and precautions: Pritzker eases religious rules, but most faiths still opting to ‘err on the side of caution’

Sanctuaries are still grappling with how to welcome back the faithful through their doors after more than two months due to the coronavirus. Many aren’t ready to do it just yet. 

Dozens of members of the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church attend service on May 10, 2020
Dozens of members of the Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church attend service on May 10, 2020 despite Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order that limits in-worship services to 10 people.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

How many worshippers are welcomed into churches, synagogues and mosques across Illinois is now a matter of recommendation, rather than requirement.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker made the significant change regarding capacity limits at houses of worship in his latest coronavirus disaster proclamation as residents move into the next stage of Illinois’ gradual reopening — but that doesn’t mean the pews will be packed on Sunday.

Not even at Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church on the Northwest Side.

The Albany Park church’s pastor, the Rev. Cristian Ionescu, had claimed victory over “tyranny” after Pritzker issued a relaxed guidance for religious gatherings that rendered moot Elim’s legal challenge against the governor’s more stringent stay-at-home order.

But Ionescu is now preaching caution, not crowds.

“We are not giddy with this victory, and we are not going to relent, and we are not going to relax,” Ionescu said in a video message Thursday. “We are going to enforce and keep all precautionary measures and restrictions in place, because we care about the health and wellbeing of our members.”

Those measures include social distancing, requiring face coverings, providing hand sanitizer and taking temperatures — steps which Elim took over two weekends of Sunday services held with about 70 worshippers present in defiance of Pritzker’s now-expiring order, and which are now spelled out in the Democratic governor’s looser set of recommendations.

Members of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church prepare for a service on May 10, 2020.
Members of Elim Romanian Pentecostal Church prepare for a service on May 10, 2020.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Other sanctuaries are still grappling with how to welcome the faithful back through their doors after more than two months. Many aren’t ready to do it just yet.

Chicago Loop Synagogue president Lee Zoldan said Friday it was like trying to hit “a very moving target” as leaders try to interpret and comply with state and local orders, while gauging how comfortable congregants feel about returning to in-person services.

“We will err on the side of caution,” Zoldan said. “We’re talking about this constantly. We’d rather it be sooner than later, but safer than sooner.”

And that won’t be this weekend, Zoldan said. The synagogue planned to hold a Zoom conference Sunday to survey members on their “personal criteria” for returning, she said.

Chicago Loop Synagogue in 1996.
Chicago Loop Synagogue in 1996.
Chicago Sun Times files.

Chicago’s local arm of the Roman Catholic Church said it didn’t have any immediate plans to accelerate the reopening plan it announced earlier this month in light of Pritzker’s guidance, but officials didn’t rule it out, either.

The Archdiocese of Chicago said churches in the region are still in the first phases of that plan, which allows for baptisms, weddings, funerals and “private prayer and adoration sessions,” all capped at 10 worshippers.

The final phase of their plan, which was made in conjunction with Pritzker’s office, would allow churches to reopen for weekday and weekend masses with larger groups, but that’s still not in sight.

A sign at St. James Catholic Parish in Arlington Heights on May 14.
A sign at St. James Catholic Parish in Arlington Heights on May 14.
Nam Y. Huh/AP file

“The bishops of the Chicago Province will review Gov. Pritzker’s new guidelines/recommendations and will communicate as soon as possible any decisions that go beyond the plan we have in place,” the archdiocese said.

Many mosques are also eyeing a return to services in light of the governor’s recommendations, but it’s not imminent. Leaders from among about 40 area mosques are meeting this weekend “to solidify plans on how this can be executed safely,” according to Abdullah Mitchell, executive director of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

While saying Chicago will maintain “the status quo for this weekend,” apparently signaling another round of fines for churches like Elim, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said her “working group of faith leaders” was continuing to craft specific guidelines for in-person religious services going forward.

A prayer service is held at the Council of Islamic Organizations in 2017.
A prayer service is held at the Council of Islamic Organizations in 2017.
Maria Cardona/ Sun-Times file

“We expect to have those guidelines finalized, hopefully next week so we can announce them in preparation for next weekend’s services,” the mayor said.

“Police haven’t been involved in breaking up any gatherings. We certainly are aware of and will continue to monitor those gatherings that we believe are in violation of the orders that will be in place for the city of Chicago. And we will take appropriate action as necessary.”

Besides suggesting houses of worship gather at a quarter of capacity, Pritzker’s guidance urges the strong consideration of “discontinuing singing, group recitation, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.” They also warn against serving food or beverages, such as at a potluck dinner or breakfast.

Those are among the precautions shaping how in-person religious practice will look whenever it returns. At the Loop Synagogue, that means they may need to rethink the custom of kissing the Torah.

“It’s not going to be fully formed,” Zoldan said. “It’ll be a new normal.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman

Read Pritzker’s new guidance for houses of worship: