ST. PAUL — Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday, May 23, announced he was lifting restrictions on churches and other houses of worship, allowing them to hold services for groups larger than 10 people beginning Wednesday, May 27.

The move comes after the governor faced backlash after he announced the latest round of reopenings for restaurants and salons, allowing restaurants and bars to serve as many as 50 in an outdoor setting, but kept the cap on indoor worship services at 10.

And it followed President Donald Trump's call to state governors to allow houses of worship to reopen for in-person services over the weekend. Trump said all places of worship should be considered essential service providers during the pandemic.

The new guidance would allow houses of worship to hold indoor services with up to 25% of their fire marshal determined capacity in attendance as long as social distancing measures are in effect and intensive cleaning measures are taken. No more than 250 people would be allowed to congregate for services in an indoor or outdoor setting.

The guidance doesn't require houses of worship to reopen and leaders at each will be able to decide if they want to reopen or wait. And state health leaders recommended that older Minnesotans and those with health issues not attend the in-person ceremonies.

"Large gatherings continue to present a clear, documented risk for increasing the spread of COVID-19," Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. "Even though we are slowly and carefully trying to open up opportunities for Minnesotans to resume activities that are so important, that does not mean we’re on the other side of this. We are not in a position of being able to drop all of those precautions. This is not a return to normal.”

Guidance for the reopenings would extend to houses of worship, funeral homes and facilities that host weddings, rituals, planned worship or scripture studies as long as they met the caps on attendees and required congregants from different households to remain at least six feet apart. But state health officials said the orders would not allow receptions or other social gatherings to follow the ceremonies.

Walz and state health officials said they were slow to allow larger church services earlier in the week because some parishioners could have heightened risks of developing severe symptoms of COVID-19. And health officials pointed to studies that showed singing was particularly effective in spreading the virus.

Leaders of the Minnesota Catholic Conference and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod on Wednesday announced they would reopen next week with or without the state’s approval. And the announcement sped up the Walz administration’s decisions around letting faith organizations come back online.

“As we move to try and have some of these places of worship open up, they’re done with the common goal of the safety and security of not only the congregants but of the community at large,” Walz said. "This is a way for us to partner together in an agreement with the archbishop and especially around the Catholic faith, but extending to others.”

Some church leaders on Saturday celebrated the option to resume in-person services. And said they would echo the state's recommendation that parishioners older than 65 worship remotely.

"I am happy to let you know of an important breakthrough in our state that will allow for greater worship opportunities for all people. This breakthrough is consistent with our need to protect public health as we take significant precautions in how we come together and pray," Rev. Michael J. Hoeppner, bishop of the Crookston Catholic Diocese, on Saturday told parishioners in a letter. "We pledge to be good citizens when offering worship in our communities and to work with public officials to promote the common good."

Republican lawmakers who voiced frustration earlier this week over the delay in allowing churches to reopen on Saturday thanked religious leaders for pushing the Walz administration to reconsider its position.

“I want to thank the faith leaders who stepped up to make sure religious groups were not treated differently than other businesses. Many of them have spent the last several months adapting their ministry in preparation for reopening," Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake, said in a news release. "They rightfully felt left behind as other businesses were given more room to reopen."

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