The suspension of in-person gatherings and activities in the Diocese of St. Cloud due to COVID-19 will continue until at least Feb. 1, Bishop Donald Kettler reiterated in a Jan. 6 letter to pastors.
These in-person gatherings include parish faith formation classes, youth gatherings, retreats, board and council meetings, and related events. The initial prohibition regarding these activities was communicated to pastors in late November and was set to end on Dec. 31. In a Dec. 18 letter to pastors, Bishop Kettler extended the date by a month.
“While the situation with COVID-19 is showing continued signs of improvement, we are still waiting to see what impact holiday travel and multi-household family gatherings during the Christmas season may have on infection rates,” he wrote Jan. 6. “Health officials also are monitoring the progress of a variant of the virus that is not yet widespread in the U.S. but is reportedly more easily transmitted.”
The Minnesota Department of Health reported 2,165 new cases Jan. 10. The seven-day averages have declined substantially after peaking in November, when the state averaged more than 7,000 cases per day for a time. Approximately 130,000 Minnesotans have now received the COVID-19 vaccine. MDH said Jan. 9 it had identified the new variant of the virus in five Twin Cities metro-area residents.
“I will make another assessment in the middle of the month and give you as much lead time as possible to make any adjustments regarding protocols,” Bishop Kettler said. “Again, my hope is that we can return to in-person gatherings after Feb. 1, but I encourage you to plan for a variety of possibilities for conducting activities, including faith formation, in light of the present uncertainties surrounding this virus. This would include planning for in-person, hybrid and distance-learning options.”
He encouraged pastors and parishes to contact the diocesan Catholic Ministries office for support and assistance.
Bishop Kettler addressed other pandemic-related issues in his letter:
• Gov. Tim Walz announced at a Jan. 6 press briefing that he is lifting the 250-person attendance cap on religious services. The 50%-occupancy limitation remains in effect with safe distancing and mask use. The new order takes effect on Jan. 11.
• The bishop included special guidance to pastors for this year’s blessing of throats for the memorial of St. Blasé, Feb. 3. Guidance for the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday will be sent to parishes in the near future.
• Choirs and vocal ensembles may return to rehearsals beginning Jan. 18 under certain parameters. Additionally, “protocols for small vocal ensembles to return to singing during Mass are currently being formulated with the intention of granting permission for groups of up to six vocalists to resume ministry beginning with the First Sunday of Lent,” Bishop Kettler wrote.
The Office of Worship will host an evening Zoom meeting in the near future for music ministers during which the protocols and best practices will be discussed. Congregational singing, however, is still not permitted. Also, choirs/vocal ensembles are still not permitted to sing during any public event or liturgy until further notice.