Houses of worship across the city gradually reopen with crowd restrictions

house of worship
Father Dwayne Davis of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands welcomes parishioners back, but in small numbers.
Photo by Todd Maisel

Houses of worship across New York City have been given the green light to reopen for private prayer and small ceremonies of 10 people or less — instilling hope amongst local religious leaders.

“It was such great joy to see parishioners again,” said Father Dwayne Davis, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands, whose Hendrickson Street parish is now open for private prayer from 9 am to 1 pm. His other parish, Our Lady Help of Christians on E. 28th Street is also open from 8 am to 12 pm daily.

Davis, whose parishes have lost nearly 25 people to the virus, welcomed the partial reopening as a note of optimism in a community hard-hit by the pandemic.

“It was really horrible, but we are just looking forward to having services together and getting past this very tough time,” he said.

However, some leaders say that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s edict, while positive, presents significant challenges to religious institutions by forcing them to choose who can enter a sanctuary in order to abide by the state’s 10 person limit. And while houses of worship have chosen to open their doors, some are still coming up with the best plan to move forward.

In Kensington, Coney Island Avenue’s Makki Masjid remains closed because leaders fear they will not be able to control the huge crowds that will try to jam the three-story sanctuary. Next door, at the Al-Rayaan Funeral Home, a huge tractor-trailer refrigerator truck donated by the community remains parked out front. At one point, the vehicle held 80 COVID-19 victims from the Muslim community while the funeral home held up to 20 funerals a day during the height of the pandemic — when, normally, they do about 250 funerals each year.

Employees move a body removed to a tractor trailer from the Al-Rayaan Funeral home in Kensington.Photo by Todd Maisel

Imtiaz Ahmed, owner of the funeral home and manager of the mosque, said it is impossible to re-open the Makki Masjid, especially so close to the end of Ramadan.

“Unfortunately, nobody pays attention to social distancing and this mosque, we get 10,000 people and this is the biggest prayer day of the year – so who are you going to tell they can’t pray,” Ahmed said. “We cannot manage that many people.”

Ahmed, who himself came down with COVID-19, said this has been one of the most challenging times of his life. His community also suffered, but Ahmed said, “everybody stepped up to help” — donating masks, gloves and money to help those who are struggling.

Some synagogues have also chosen to stay closed because of the inability to regulate how many people will attend at one time. Rabbi Motti Seligson of the Chabad Lubavitch movement said the Lubavitch World Headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway has remained closed as per Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s previous orders.

“We are grateful that the curve has flattened to the point where authorities feel it is safe to once again to gather in synagogues – even with the limitations,” Seligson said. “That we are here is very good and we have to acknowledge that the worst is behind us. People know prayer is a crucial element of a healthy society and a healthy life. Ensuring that there is the ability to gather and pray is something that will only help people through this most difficult time.”

This story first appeared on AMNY.com.