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Keith Kelly sits with his mother during private prayer at St. Cassian Roman Catholic Church in spring of 2020, shortly after the church reopened to congregants. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
hochman@montclairlocal.news

New Jersey houses of worship can immediately hold indoor services with more congregants than at any time since the novel coronavirus pandemic began — but don’t rush out to the pews just yet.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced Monday that effective immediately, gatherings for religious services are permitted at up to 50% of room capacity, with no hard limit on raw headcount. Those who don’t live in the same household will be required to sit at least six feet apart.

When Murphy first permitted indoor religious gatherings last summer, the limit was 25% or 50 people, whichever was fewer. A more recent adjustment brought that number to 35%, or 150, again whichever was fewer.

Still, houses of worship can set their own policies that are stricter than those the state allows — and some in Montclair will.

“We’re not even back in yet,” Lynn McFarlane, a trustee of Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Monroe Place, told Montclair Local Monday. “Our members didn’t feel comfortable coming.”

But a church reopening committee is looking at recent changes to pandemic conditions — such as increasing vaccinations, and a decline in new cases after this winter’s earlier spike. It’s possible “we’ll see a brighter future with COVID,” she said.

“I would say we’re glad, that the state is opening things, but … we’re going to be going by what our members feel,” McFarlane said. She said she expected the congregation to be “overabundant as far as caution goes.”

Imam Kevin Dawud of Masjid Al Wadud on Bloomfield Avenue said the loosened restriction is good news.

“With the greater flexibility, we’ll be able to expand,” he said.

Masjid Al Wadud has been holding services on what Dawud said was a very limited basis with reduced capacity, as many members of the congregation don’t yet feel safe in crowds. The vote of confidence from the state could prompt some to return, Dawud said.

He stressed any increase in capacity would only come with continuing safe practices, including social distancing and mask-wearing.

The St. Teresa of Calcutta Parish has been holding in-person services at reduced capacity at the Church of Immaculate Conception. Like Masjid Al Wadud and Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church, it has also held video services for congregants to observe from home.

“While our good people have been with us 100% in spirit during the lockdown, we welcome them back, now at 50% capacity, always with an eye to being safely and totally together again in the near future,” Father Amilcar Benito Prado, known to the congregation as Father Benny, told Montclair Local in an email.

The parish’s other church, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, has been struggling with structural issues and closed since last year.

But for St. Cassian Roman Catholic Church, the upshot is likely no change at all, Father Marc Vicari said. With social distancing protocols in place, the church can manage about 115 to 120 people — well under 50 percent of its normal 425-person capacity.

“What would help us more is when we don’t have to distance” because the virus has become less of a threat, Vicari said.

For most services, the congregation hasn’t reached the maximum the church can currently accommodate as is, Vicari said.

He called Murphy’s announcement “a good sign.”

“It doesn’t necessarily affect us numbers-wise. I think it affects people with their opinion, and comfort level,” he said.

And the situation is similar at Bnai Keshet on Fullerton Avenue, which hasn’t had more than 20 people at indoor services, even with a normal sanctuary capacity of about 250, Rabbi Ariann Weitzman said. The synagogue held some outdoor services when the weather permitted, and expects to again.

Weitzman said the synagogue’s own medical task force is more cautious than the governor’s restrictions allow. And she said she doesn’t see a reason for religious services to be under any more permissive of a rule set than other gatherings — many of which remain capped at 35 percent of normal indoor capcity.

“Religion does not protect you from catching COVID,” she said. She noted services often involve singing — an activity public health officials warn spreads the virus farther than normal breathing.

Weitzman didn’t anticipate any change to Bnai Keshet’s practices for now, and said she expects the remote participation that came about during the pandemic may persist for some time — perhaps indefinitely — even after it’s safe to hold larger gatherings. It’s many congregants who were otherwise unable to attend, coronavirus concerns aside, could take part she said. That includes former residents and those who are homebound or physically unable to come to the sanctuary.

Murphy, at his coronavirus media briefing Monday, said positive trends in the state’s coronavirus statistics made the announcement possible. The rate of transmission — an estimate of how many people each person with the coronavirus infects — was at .86 that day. A rate below 1.0 generally indicates a slowing spread.

“We know that, for many of our residents, the ability to worship together plays a central role in well-being and mental health,” Murphy said.