By Matthew Brown ASSOCIATED PRESS
LAUREL, Mont. (AP) — Montana took its first, halting step toward reopening on Sunday as churchgoers returned to services after a month-long hiatus and a general stay-at-home order expired.
While other states have been extending restrictions amid the continuing spread of the coronavirus, Montana is among those that are beginning to loosen rules in hopes of restoring battered economies and regaining some normalcy.
In the town of Laurel, roughly 100 people streamed into St. Anthony Catholic Church as ushers scrambled to keep families separate from one another. Large bottles of hand sanitizer were available at the sanctuary’s entrance.
Church member Jack Auzqui said being unable to attend for the past month had been spiritually difficult for him and his wife. Returning, he said, was akin to having his family reunited.
“It’s like being given life again,” Auzqui said.
In Helena, fewer than 50 people gathered for mass in the normally crowded Cathedral of St. Helena. Monsignor Kevin O’Neill looked over the congregation, only four of whom were wearing face coverings, and said, “Welcome home, brothers and sisters.”
Some who attended believed that churches should have been deemed essential services and that in-person services never should have been halted.
“I felt like church was essential and it’s important to get back,” said Patricia Wirth, who drove 35 miles from Wolf Creek to attend the Helena mass. “It’s as essential as Home Depot, I’m sorry.”
At Christ the King Lutheran Church in Billings, Pastor Ryan Wendt said the church was mixing faith with common sense precautions. Like at St. Anthony, every other pew in Wendt’s sanctuary was kept empty to comply with social distancing guidelines. A few people wore face masks.
“This is God’s house. We are not doing frivolous, needless things. Not in a weird way, we simply trust that God is going to protect us and provide for us,” Wendt said.
But some religious houses stayed shuttered as their leaders expressed worry that returning too soon could put people at risk.
“We’ve been keeping our building clean and open and sanitized, but we’re not ready now. We just want to do a little more,” said Beth Rager with the Open Bible Christian Center in Billings, which plans to reopen in May.
Officials reported three new infections Sunday, bringing the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide to 448. Fourteen people in Montana have died of the disease.
Most of those sickened are reported to have recovered and the daily number of new cases has dropped dramatically since late March.
During the first phase of Montana’s reopening, which has no set timeline, people over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions are asked to continue to stay at home.
Retail shops closed since March 26 under a directive from Gov. Steve Bullock were due to reopen Monday, with bars, restaurants and casinos eligible to open May 4.
Gyms, pools, movie theaters and bowling alleys will remain closed. Residents are still asked to minimize nonessential travel and to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning to the state.
Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and trouble breathing. Most develop only mild symptoms. But some people, usually those with other medical complications, develop more severe symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.
In Helena, Narrate Church staff asked congregants whether they were experiencing any coronavirus symptoms before ushering them them to their adequately spaced seats.
Adam Huschka, who led the service, commended his small audience of 25 for venturing out.
“You read about things like the Mayflower and who gets on that thing, and in some sense, you’re them,” he said. “You’ve stepped out, and that’s not a judgment against people who haven’t at all, it’s just the realization that we live in this crazy, in-between world. ”