According to the original guidelines issued by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, individuals were permitted to frequent houses of worship as long as they practiced proper distancing and didn’t partake in services. This edict is problematic since it is unclear if the governor even has the authority to infringe on religious rights in such a manner. Furthermore, a house of worship is not inherently less safe if people are there to pray on their own versus if they hold services.
On Wednesday, May 20th, Governor Cuomo announced that religious services are now permitted but with a limit of 10 people. The specific number of ten people represents a Minyan, a quorum, needed for services. Here again the government announced a religion-based rule (10 people) and one which is not health-based as a large congregation can easily accommodate 100 people with the required distancing. This is similar to how large essential stores filled with people buying non-essential items have space for dozens or hundreds of people at once.
A health-based rule would permit attendance relative to a facility’s capacity, with crowd size playing a secondary role. For example, 33% of the maximum capacity or a 50 person limit; whichever is less.
For most of the lock down, Governor Cuomo permitted golf courses to be open without a ten person limit, and neither is there such a limit on tennis courts or shopping. Crowd size rules need be universal (except for schools), no matter the function. Different crowd sizes for indoor versus outdoor areas would also make sense as long as it is applied evenly to all functions. For one person, golf or buying clothing at a box store is “essential,” but for another person prayer is essential. Further, essential stores are permitted to sell items deemed non-essential despite the health concerns. Houses of worship should at a minimum have the same crowd size rules as those retail outlets.