JANELLE DE SOUZA and LAUREL WILLIAMS
It is a time for rejoicing as Christians, Hindus, Muslims and followers of other faiths can return to their places of worship, with restrictions, on Friday.
"That should bring a lot of relief to all the people who were anticipating their community church and place of worship services," the Prime Minister announced on Saturday, as Government continued to rollback stay-at-home measures, since imposing restrictions to curb the spread of covid19 in mid-March.
Dr Rowley said protocols for places of worship would be issued by the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Roshan Parasram, but basically the faithful would have to maintain covid19 best practices.
These would include wearing masks and regular sanitisation. However, with regard to physical distancing, congregation members were to be seated arms length apart and on alternate pews. He also recommended that, in order to limit exposure, services should be limited to one hour.
Rowley added that the number of people in a place of worship would not be restricted to ten but would be determined by the size of the building.
“If it’s a small church and you do the same thing – alternate pews, arms length, then there is a certain number that you can accommodate. If you go to a much larger one like the cathedral, using the same formula, then you accommodate more people," he said.
"If you go to the mosque where there are no pews, we expect that the protocols we asked, that you mark the floor and people can take part in the proceedings at mosque using the same spacing.”
A Hindu leader agreed with the Prime Minister's caution on the return to worship, noting the high death toll worldwide due to covid19, and encouraged people to continue to pray at home.
"You cannot act foolish and expect God to help you. You must be practical. God does not run away. You can pray whole day wherever you are," said Paramacharya pundit Hardeo Persad, spiritual head of Swaha International.
"I encourage people to pray at home, pray for this pandemic to go all together and for a cure for things to get back to normal. Until then, we should follow the protocols...Hinduism is very adaptable to the time, places and circumstances," Persad told Sunday Newsday.
He expressed concerns that due to physical distancing, small mandirs and temples may have to remain closed. Persad said, "It would be counter-productive to have a service because some people would have to be left out from entering the mandir. It might be better not to have a service to prevent discrimination."
Bishop Claude Berkley, head of the Anglican diocese, said the diocese is committed to following the guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus. Even before Rowley’s announcement, the diocese had a meeting planned for Monday to discuss a draft policy for churches.
"We will use the policy to familiarise ourselves with so we can have a common mind in going forward for the reopening. We are fairly set. We will not rush into the reopening even though I think many people are anxious about resuming worship, of course, with a new normal," Berkley said.
"We have to ensure the relevant matters are in place...While some people may be ready, others may not. We are seeking a consensus of that."
Vicar General Monsignor Christian Pereira of the Catholic Archdiocese of Port of Spain previously said when churches were allowed to reopen only one quarter of the churches’ capacity would be allowed. He also said while senior citizens may want to go to church in person, they were advised to stay home.
On Saturday, Pereira, the parish priest of St Benedict’s in La Romaine, said he visited the church to assess the seating capacity. A special mass will be held on Saturday at 5 pm.
"We are communication with the people via the e-mails, WhatsApp and Facebook regarding the arrangements for attendance. We were expecting the reopening for the 22nd and things were going along fairly alright for that date," he said.
ASJA president general, Haji Yacoob Ali, said welcomed the lifting of restrictions on places of worship.
"We appreciate that the Government has thought it fit to reopen so the regular prayers and duties we have to perform can be done at the mosque. Certain things can be recited as much as a person wants, some members will continue to do their prayers at their homes," he said.
During the lockdown, religious leaders conducted services using digital media and shifted outdoor rituals, especially those carried out at seas and rivers, to temples or the homes of followers. Funerals were limited to five people until the number was raised to ten, a week ago.
Several major religious holidays were affected including Spiritual/Shouter Baptist Liberation Day, Easter, and Eid-ul-Fitr.
The opening of places of worship would occur the day after Corpus Christi, a public holiday, and, acknowledging that Rowley said it would be “a little different” and wished members of the Christian community a “holy, sacred and reflective” occasion.