50-person limit for church services ‘strange and disappointing’

Limiting attendees to 50 people at resumed indoor church services is strange and disappointing, a senior cleric has said.

Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin’s comments came as a scientific expert claimed the chances of being infected with coronavirus in the wider community in Ireland now stood at around one in a million.

The archbishop suggested the size of congregation should reflect the size of each church when places of worship reopen on June 29.

When churches reopen, they will be subject to the Government’s revised restrictions on public gatherings that come into effect at the end of the month.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (PA)</figcaption>
Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin (PA)

The limits, announced by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as part of the latest fast-tracking of Ireland’s exit plan, are set at 50 people indoors and 200 people outdoors.

On July 20, these limits will rise to 100 people indoors and 500 people outdoors.

The coronavirus death toll in Ireland rose to 1,715 on Saturday after a further two fatalities were announced.

There were 22 new confirmed cases of Covid-19, taking to 25,374 the total since the outbreak began in Ireland.

Archbishop Martin said churches had made a huge investment in preparing for reopening.

“It is obviously disappointing that with the reopening for public worship, there is a blanket restriction to the participation of a maximum of 50 in these first weeks,” he said.

The cleric said many Mass-goers would be cautious of large gatherings as Ireland takes its next steps out of lockdown.

“However, it seems strange that in a church with a capacity of 1,500 people which has been scrupulously fitted out for conformity with social distancing and with clear indications about movement and interaction of people within church, that only 50 people might be present, while we all see a situation in which large retail outlets are brimming with people,” he said.

“I hope that it will be possible to come to a more reasonable and responsible situation in which numbers permitted to attend Mass could be proportionate to the size of each church. The numbers would not be very large. In some cases, it is not just a question of the limitation to 50 people in a large parish church, but this would effectively mean that only 50 people out of a parish of over 10,000 might be able to attend.”

Archbishop Martin said Mass would be likely to be restricted to around 10 families attending under the revised rules.

Earlier on Saturday, Professor Sam McConkey said the circulation of the virus in Ireland was now “very, very low”.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>A new mural by Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)</figcaption>
A new mural by Irish artist Emmalene Blake in Dublin (Brian Lawless/PA)

The head of the Department of International Health and Tropical Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland said most new cases reported each day had known links to other cases and they had gone into self-isolation when they were told they were a close contact.

“The number of unexpected cases of Covid-19 or Sars2 virus is around a one in a million level in Ireland,” he told RTÉ Radio One.

“Many of the numbers we are seeing each day in Ireland are known contacts of other cases, so they are not unexpected cases.

“Each day we are getting about 10 or 15 cases but the majority of those now are known household contacts, they are already in self-isolation because they were already known to be close to somebody else who had it already.

“So they are part of a known chain of an epidemic spread and are already in isolation.

“The circulation level in the community is very, very low – about one in a million.”

Prof McConkey said the virus prevalence was even lower in counties in the west of Ireland.

He said it was his view that people living in those areas could hug their grandparents.

The expert said he was “comfortable” with the pace Ireland was exiting lockdown at.

“I think there is a time to get out and live and now is the time,” he said.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>Leo Varadkar announced the latest fast-tracking of relaxations on Friday (Julien Behal/PA)</figcaption>
Leo Varadkar announced the latest fast-tracking of relaxations on Friday (Julien Behal/PA)

On Friday, Mr Varadkar announced the latest rephasing of Ireland’s recovery roadmap.

The Taoiseach said that, apart from some exceptions, most things are now being moved to phase three of the plan, beginning on June 29.

These include the reopening of gyms, cinemas, leisure facilities, hairdressers, beauticians and barber shops.

Mr Varadkar also said that all sporting activities, including close contact sports, can recommence.

Chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan highlighted that nine of the 22 new cases announced on Saturday involved people under the age of 35.

“It is important for us all to remember that Covid-19 is a disease that can affect everyone, of any age or background,” he said.

“No one should feel that this is a disease that does not affect them.

“This virus is highly infectious and, as a result, the return of widespread community transmission remains a very real risk.

“To protect us all, especially our oldest and most vulnerable, personal preventative behaviours such as good and frequent hand washing, social distancing and respiratory etiquette remain as crucial as they were at the outset of this crisis.”