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Walz extends occupancy for church services

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz on Saturday scrapped his 10-person limit on group gatherings and agreed to allow churches to open at 25% occupancy if certain safety guidelines are met.

Walz said the decision, coming on a day when the state reported a record number of COVID-19 cases, has been “a challenging one” because large gatherings raise the risk of spreading the virus. He said the last week “has been all over the place” as he considered new Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and talked with religious leaders about the change.

“I understand the toll the pandemic has taken on the spiritual health of Minnesotans,” said Walz, whose new executive order for religious gatherings goes into effect Wednesday. It applies only to ceremonies and not to receptions, he added.

The Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had already said it would reopen Tuesday at one-third capacity. The archdiocese leader, Archbishop Bernard Hebda, said in a letter to parishioners Saturday that the churches would abide by the Wednesday opening and emphasized that safety comes first.

Said Hebeda, “If a parish is not confident they are ready, they should not open. Period.”

The archbishop said limiting gatherings to 10 people had “burdened the Church’s ability to fully meet the sacramental needs of our faithful” and he appreciated the “honest, open, and fast-paced dialogue” with state leaders.

In addition to social distancing and attendance guidelines, the new plan recommends that everyone wear masks and that no singing takes place in a congregate setting.

Walz’s announcement came as state health officials confirmed 730 new cases of the coronavirus, raising the statewide total to more than 20,500. Cases in Lyon County rose to 31, while one more case was added to Lincoln County which has a total of five.

The updated report includes 17 deaths from COVID-19, for a statewide total of 869.

Health officials said 709 deaths have occurred among residents of long-term care facilities.

A total of 2,588 people have required hospitalization. Of those, 553 remain in those facilities, with 207 in intensive care.

More than 14,000 people were marked as no longer needing isolation.

The actual number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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