Colorado now classifies worship, ceremonies as essential

Weddings, funerals may also exceed capacity caps in light of court action

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In light of federal court input on capacity limits at houses of worship, the state public-health department has reclassified worship and related ceremonies such as weddings to be “critical services” — meaning they now can exceed capacity limits meant to combat the coronavirus.

Those activities are now classified as critical in the same way other exempt industries and activities — such as health care, food banks, child care and a long list of others — are given exceptions in the public health order behind Colorado's COVID-19 dial. That's the color-coded system of restrictions counties must follow based on their local virus spread.

The revised guidelines apply to worship and associated ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and baptisms, whether religious or secular. But after-parties for these activities are considered indoor or outdoor events, according to the State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the state public-health department. Indoor and outdoor events have their own specific limits in Colorado's dial. Indoor events are generally required to be closed in level-red counties, which includes the entire Denver metro area and much of the rest of Colorado.

Ceremonies and worship services must do their best to follow public health recommendations, the department said in a news release.

“But (they) may exceed recommended capacity caps if they cannot conduct their essential activity within those restrictions,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in the news release. The changes took effect Dec. 7.

Ceremonies and worship services still must require masks indoors, other prevention measures such as 6-foot spacing between members of different households, and appropriate sanitation, according to the release. Outdoor activities are still strongly preferred, it added.

Input from the U.S. Supreme Court recently indicated that limits on religious activities could not be more restrictive than requirements implemented for other sectors, the statement from the State Joint Information Center said.

“As such, Colorado aligned our public health order with these rulings and have simply categorized worship activities and associated ceremonies as critical services or activities without further sector-specific restrictions,” the statement said.

John Douglas, head of Tri-County Health Department, expressed some concern about expanded attendance at worship gatherings.

“This is complicated due to the recent Supreme Court decision and First Amendment rights,” Douglas said. “Church services and gatherings have been sources of 'superspreader' events and have been identified as important areas of (virus) transmission in published studies.”

If religious services and life-rite events are handled carefully — with masks, social distancing, adequate ventilation and people staying home when sick — they can be relatively safer, Douglas said.

“Faith leaders will have to be particularly attentive to these parameters during the end-of-year holiday season to avoid circumstances of COVID spread during their gatherings,” Douglas said.

The state also expanded the ability of educational indoor settings such as museums to operate.

Indoor events in general are closed in level-red counties, but now, educational institutions such as museums, aquariums and zoos are an exception to that rule. They may operate at 25% capacity or, generally, 25 people per room, whichever is fewer. That's another change that took effect Dec. 7.

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