The order took effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, as the District, Maryland and Virginia continue to see spiking levels of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
It cites the archdiocese’s lawsuit — which was filed last Friday and includes a motion for a temporary restraining order filed Monday — and says the new rules offer “parity” among different types of activities. Indoor restaurant dining was reduced from 50 percent capacity to 25 percent capacity as of Monday, the order notes, adding that under the new rule, the city’s largest restaurants could host no more than 250 people at a time. At a news conference Monday, she cited the restaurants Clyde’s and Old Ebbitt Grill.
The order further states that the city will impose a 250-person cap on a wider variety of socially distant activities. No more than 250 people may play sports on the same playing field; browse a museum on the same floor; use a gym, indoor skate park, bowling alley, or skating rink; or shop in a store.
Most of those activities are also subject to other restrictions on capacity, many of which would make getting anywhere close to 250 people impossible or at least unlikely.
The archdiocese’s response to the city wasn’t clear late Thursday. In a statement, the archdiocese said it was “grateful the new order will allow us to welcome more of the faithful to Church." It said the archdiocese is “continuing to evaluate” the new rules and appeared to be continuing the lawsuit. “It may still be necessary for the court to weigh in on the proper balance between public safety and the fundamental right to worship.”
Monsignor Walter Rossi, rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine, the largest Catholic church building in North America, Thursday said he would like to include even more people, but that the mayor’s change is better than the previous option. The Basilica seats 3,000 people at a time, and last Christmas, at seven Masses on Christmas Day and Eve, it hosted 13,650 people.
With the new order, he said, over seven Masses they will fit 1,750. “It’s better. It’s not best or great but it’s something," he said. With social distancing, Rossi said the Shrine potentially could fit 425 individuals at a time or 800 family members sitting together.
Since the city has limited houses of worship to 50 people per service, Rossi says every Sunday the Shrine turns away hundreds of people. Last weekend over four services they turned away nearly 1,000, he said.
“It’s sad for us and heartbreaking almost. When people are crying because they want to go to church, how do you console them? I understand the mayor is trying to keep us safe and that’s commendable, but people want and need to go to church. Especially in times like this, when prayer is vital”
Last month, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority sided with religious organizations in New York that claimed pandemic gathering restrictions that set caps — regardless of a building’s size — are illegal. They also said the restrictions were an infringement on the groups’ constitutionally protected religious freedom. The next week, the court again ruled in favor of California churches seeking relief from the governor’s restrictions.
At the conference Thursday, Bowser said her order was influenced by the Supreme Court’s recent decisions. “We are trying to be as responsive to that ruling as we can,” she said. “Regardless of what the courts say, we do ask [churches] to do what is good for the community.”
The Catholic archdiocese of Washington, which includes the District and its Maryland suburbs, had requested a temporary restraining order earlier Wednesday, asking a judge to act quickly to overturn the city’s numerical limit on worship service attendance in advance of Christmas. It asked the U.S. District Court to make a decision by Friday and it wasn’t clear Thursday if or how the mayor’s changed rules would impact the motion.
The lawsuit said the archdiocese would agree to a 50 percent capacity cap, but not a maximum number of attendees.
Bowser’s order said it was intended in part to “resolve litigation.” But it also made clear the mayor’s frustration at churches that would seek to host hundreds of people in person during a worsening pandemic.
“With such a high rate of community transmission, some persons at large gatherings are likely to be exposed to the virus. Such exposure is likely even when a range of additional preventative actions are taken, such as adherence to social distancing rules,” the order says.
“A recent lawsuit appears to insist on a constitutional right to hold indoor worship services of even a thousand persons or more at the largest facilities, which flies in the face of all scientific and medical advice and will doubtless put parishioners in harm’s way.”
Bowser said she has not spoken to Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop, but hopes the archdiocese won’t fill churches to the new maximum allowed under the law. “I have great faith in D.C. Catholics. I’m one of them,” she said. “This year is not the year to pack churches full of people.”
With virus cases continuing to rise, she said she is mulling more restrictive rules in the coming days.
Michael Brice-Saddler and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.