Jan. 12 COVID-19 update and protocols reminder from the bishops

The following COVID-19 update and protocols reminder from the bishops was sent to clergy and congregational and diocesan leadership on Jan. 12, 2022.

Jan. 12, 2022

Dear Colleagues in the Diocese of Massachusetts,

Grace and peace to you as we enter the season after the Epiphany.

As you are no doubt aware, COVID-19 diagnoses continue to increase dramatically all over the nation and in many places around the world.  Massachusetts is among states with the highest number of cases, now almost exclusively driven by the Omicron variant, and the infection rate indicates rapid spread of the virus.  Thankfully, though there has yet to be a corresponding increase in severe illnesses or deaths, the stress on our medical care systems from the sheer numbers of new cases is evident.  We therefore extend the following reminders and cautions, in service of caring for one another.

Strict re-dedication to COVID guidelines:  We continue to urge--in the strongest possible terms--strict adherence to the COVID guidelines issued on Nov. 15, 2021, as reaffirmed in our pre-Christmas communiques.  These guidelines include mandatory mask-wearing by all worshipers and participants in church events; physical distancing between individuals or family units; restrictions on administration of the sacrament; and extreme caution at any fellowship gathering.  Please review the Nov. 15 letter and its predecessor guidelines linked therein for detailed direction.

Support for local decision to return to online platforms:  We reiterate that, while not issuing a blanket prohibition of in-person worship at this time, your bishops strongly support any clergy or regathering team who conclude that in their local context, in the interest of safety, worship services, Christian formation opportunities, or other events should be moved entirely to a virtual platform.  We encourage those who are at higher risk of severe complications from COVID infection, due to age or underlying medical conditions, to exercise great caution in their activities, including church events.

Caution at fellowship gatherings:  We underscore that coffee hours, receptions, and any other events with food and drink fall under the distancing guidelines.  The removal of masks at such events while in physical proximity to others represents a dramatic risk with the Omicron variant.  Therefore, such events are impracticable for all but the smallest gatherings.  We strongly discourage such gatherings for large numbers of people.

Vaccination among staff and other leaders:  We remind you that COVID vaccination is required of all persons, clergy or lay, who are engaged in ministry with the most vulnerable, including children age 12 and under, homebound or immune-compromised persons, and those in hospitals and care facilities.  Due to the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, we urge extreme caution for pastoral visits and strict adherence to guidelines issued last year.  We support vaccine requirements for church staff, choristers and musicians, youth ministry leaders, and other volunteers in your congregation.

Paid sick leave for COVID:  Beginning July 8, 2021, and until April 1, 2022, or the exhaustion of $75 million in program funds as determined by the Commonwealth, employers may apply for reimbursement of the costs of providing COVID-19 emergency paid sick leave.  The application is available through the Department of Revenue's MassTaxConnect website.  With the exception of the federal government, the law applies to all employers of Massachusetts employees.  If an employee's primary place of employment is in Massachusetts, the state's COVID sick leave is available to them for qualifying reasons between May 28, 2021, and the termination of the mandate (April 1, 2022, or when funding is exhausted, whichever is first), and their employer must provide it to them directly in the form of paid leave (40 hours for full-time employees; pro-rated for part-time).  The employee must be paid at their normal rate of pay, up to $850 total including benefits.  The employer may then apply to the state for reimbursement.  To apply for reimbursement after providing an employee with Massachusetts COVID sick leave, employers should follow the steps found on the mass.gov website, here.

Support and response:  Canon Bill Parnell is available to you to respond to your questions and concerns.  You may reach him by e-mail at bparnell@diomass.org or by phone at 617-482-4826, ext. 205.  Canon Parnell will host a Zoom gathering for clergy, wardens and members of regathering teams on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 5-6 p.m.  The Zoom link has been e-mailed directly to clergy and congregational leaders.

Dear friends, we are so grateful for your wise leadership throughout this pandemic; your commitment to your congregations and communities; your pastoral devotion, especially to those in greatest need; and your patience with yourself and one another in such an anxious time.

Grateful blessings to you,

The Rt. Rev. Alan M. Gates
The Rt. Rev. Gayle E. Harris