People exchange the sign of peace during Mass. Dioceses nationwide are taking precautions to guard against the spread of the coronavirus and reminding parishioners to take commonsense steps related to hygiene in their personal lives. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Florida dioceses adopt wide-ranging plans to limit spread of coronavirus

ORLANDO  |  As the state of Florida has confirmed three known cases of COVID-19, Florida’s dioceses are joining dioceses nationwide in taking precautions to guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

Diocesan websites in Florida are posting letters from their bishops and guidelines that remind parishioners to take commonsense steps related to hygiene in their personal lives.

A letter posted on the Diocese of Venice website (dioceseofvenice.org) stated that in January, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice encouraged parishes to discontinue the distribution of Communion under both species — distributing only the Body of Christ — during Mass. The bishop also urged parishioners to not hold hands during the Our Father or shake hands at the sign of peace. One of the three cases of COVID-19 was in Manatee County, within the Diocese of Venice, which includes 61 parishes, 10 missions, 16 schools and 38 Special Centers for Social Services in its 10-county radius.

These were also guidelines were also introduced in the Diocese of Palm Beach, which includes 50 parishes, three missions and 18 schools, including a seminary, within its five-county radius. A statement on its website — diocesepb.org — added a consideration about the implementation of holy water fonts and the distribution of Holy Communion.

“Parishes may also empty the holy water fonts at the church doors and can encourage the use of anti-bacterial soap by the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion before and after distribution of the host,” the statement read. “It is still left to the discretion of the communicant how they wish to receive the host. As the distribution of Holy Communion involves contact with both the mouth and hands, any Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion who feels uncomfortable distributing Communion should be allowed to temporarily step down from ministry.”

All Florida’s archdiocese and dioceses are continuing to monitor developments related to COVID-19, and protocols for medical emergencies are reviewed and updated as necessary in compliance with the Centers for Disease Control and the Florida Department of Health. Catholic agencies and dioceses in Florida are recommending all residents to visit the state Department of Health — www.floridahealth.gov/diseases-and-conditions/COVID-19/index.html — for updates and information on prevention and care.

Another link for good information about the Church’s response to the virus is located at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website — www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/sacred-art-and-music/influenza-and-the-liturgy.cfm.

Health officials in the U.S. have confirmed more than 100 cases of the illness in 15 states, including at least nine deaths. Worldwide by March 3, more than 92,000 cases and more than 3,100 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus, with most in China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

Schools have also been on watch since the outbreak. In a letter to Catholic school parents, Henry Fortier, superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Orlando, asked that parents, students and staff stay home from work or school if sick to avoid spreading infections. Along with its 43 schools, the Diocese of Orlando includes 79 parishes, 11 missions and two basilicas in its nine-county radius. Fortier wrote that school administrators could contact parents and ask them to pick up their children, if they reveal symptoms that they are sick.

The letter outlined “best practice” strategies that could be utilized during any season that involves a contagious illness. Some of those practices outlined included:

•  Avoid close contact with others who are sick;

•  Cover nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing;

•  Wash hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use hand sanitizer with a minimum of 60% alcohol content;

•  Avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth as germs are spread this way;

•  Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with germs; and

•  Avoid sharing food and drinks with others.

“We are currently investigating alternative continued learning structures in the event that schools are mandated to close for an extended period of time,” Fortier wrote in the letter. “As updates happen, our school administrators will communicate through email and we will post updates on the Diocesan Office of Schools’ website: www.orlandodiocese.org/ministries-offices/schools.”

By March 3, COVID-19 had reached about 70 countries including the United States. Health officials in the U.S. have confirmed more than 100 cases of the illness in 15 states, including at least nine deaths. Worldwide by March 3, more than 92,000 cases and more than 3,100 deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus, with most in China, the epicenter of the outbreak.

At the same time, at least one bishop urged calm as people responded to the coronavirus, designated COVID-19 by world health authorities.

“Please encourage your communities during this time of uncertainty to prepare, but not panic,” Auxiliary Bishop Joel M. Konzen, administrator of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said in a Feb. 28 memo. He said precautions preventing the spread of COVID-19 were similar to those to prevent the spread of flu.

At the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, general secretary, March 3 requested in an email to staff that they “refrain, until further notice, from planning any new international travel.”

He called on workers who had already purchased tickets for travel to “reconsider the necessity of the trip in consultation with your senior staff supervisor and determine an appropriate plan of action.”

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Honolulu in mid-February declined to put in place any restrictions at Mass. However, Father Pascal Abaya, rector of the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace in the Hawaiian capital told worshippers the Communion cup would no longer be distributed, a step he called “precautionary” during flu season. n