- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 17, 2020

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has changed coronavirus restrictions on capacity limits at religious gatherings following a lawsuit filed by the Archdiocese of Washington.

An executive order issued late Wednesday allows houses of worship to host up to 250 people or 25% of the building’s maximum capacity, whichever is less.

The archdiocese’s lawsuit argued that religious facilities should be treated the same as restaurants in terms of capacity limits, or the same as other activities in which large gatherings are not required.

The new capacity rules went into effect Thursday, and apply to restaurants, retail food sellers, recreational facilities and other essential and non-essential businesses.

“We are grateful that the new order will allow us to welcome more of the faithful to Church during the Christmas season and beyond,” the archdiocese said Thursday in a press release.

Miss Bowser on Thursday urged residents to celebrate the holidays virtually.

DOCUMENT: Mayor Bowser's December 16, 2020 order modifying restrictions on houses of worship

“[T]his year is not the year to pack churches full of people,”she said at a press conference. “We are asking people — to the best extent they can — to celebrate virtually.”

The mayor acknowledged that the Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of church leaders in Colorado and New Jersey who had filed similar lawsuits against coronavirus measures that restricted occupancy.

“[T]he court’s rulings related to churches being treated in a different way from other large gatherings … we are trying to be as responsive to that ruling as we can,” she said. “We know at the same time I have a responsibility to D.C. residents, to tell them what we know, and to — regardless of what courts say — to ask them to do what is good for the city, and for themselves, and for the family. So, I have great faith in D.C. Catholics. I am one of them.”

Miss Bowser said that her revised order is the “best way” for her administration to try to resolve the lawsuit, adding that she had not yet spoken to Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the archbishop of Washington, about it. She also said the revised rules had not prompted the archdiocese to withdraw its complaint.

Her order states that web-based, individual counseling, small sacramental services and online giving are still encouraged.

“We are continuing to evaluate the impact of these new rules, and it may still be necessary for the court to weigh in on the proper balance between public safety and the fundamental right to worship,” the archdiocese said. “As always, we welcome continued dialogue with the Mayor’s Office to ensure that current and future restrictions are fairly applied and do not unduly burden the free exercise of religion.”

The revised order also requires libraries to reduce capacity from 50% to 25%, with a maximum capacity of 200 people.

Additionally, guided tours are prohibited and museums must limit capacity to 250 people, with only 25 people at a time permitted in auditoriums, self-contained exhibit halls or any other room.

Large gatherings at groundbreaking or grand opening events for real estate, construction and other developments are limited to 25 people indoors with only 10 people at a time allowed in the same room.

The restrictions modify Phase Two of the mayor’s reopening plans, which have been in effect since July.

In Maryland, religious facilities are restricted to 50% capacity. Virginia does not have any capacity limits.

• Emily Zantow can be reached at ezantow@washingtontimes.com.

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