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NPHET unlikely to budge on 50-person limit for Mass and other indoor gatherings

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said it seems “strange” that churches with a capacity of 1,500 would be subject to this restriction.

An online mass at the Church of the Ascension in Balally, Dublin.
An online mass at the Church of the Ascension in Balally, Dublin.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

THE CHIEF MEDICAL Officer has indicated that health officials will likely recommend indoor gatherings be restricted to a maximum of 50 people in Phase 3, despite criticism from the Archbishop of Dublin of this advice as it relates to Mass.

The Taoiseach last week announced that religious buildings and places of worship will be able to reopen for Mass in Phase 3 starting on 29 June, but that indoor gatherings like this will be restricted to a maximum of 50 people. This will increase to 100 people in Phase 4.

At the weekend, Diarmuid Martin said the Phase 3 restrictions would mean less than 1% of people in many parishes – many of which number in the thousands – being able to gather for Mass.

“It seems strange that in a church with a capacity of 1,500 people which has been scrupulously fitted out for conformity with social distancing and with clear indications about movement and interaction of people within church, that only 50 people might be present, while we all see a situation in which large retail outlets brimming with people,” he said.

He called for “a more reasonable and responsible” approach for churches where there is capacity to hold more than 50 people while still abiding to public health advice on social distancing.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) will meet on Thursday to finalise its advice to the government on Phase 3 measures and Dr Tony Holohan this evening indicated it is unlikely that officials will recommend indoor gatherings with more than 50 people take place in any setting.

“We think that the restrictions particularly on indoor gatherings are really important ones for us to maintain a high level of compliance with,” he said.

It’s one of the areas where the ECDC [European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control] has identified as likely to be in place for some continuing period of time, even after restrictions have been eased across a range of European countries, and really no European country so far has let go of some restriction in relation to both indoor and outdoor mass gatherings.

He said most countries have not introduced more nuanced guidance that reflects on the size of the church or other venues, the focus is instead on the numbers of people attending an event.

In relation to other venues such as cinemas or music venues reopening, Dr Holohan said NPHET will be issuing “straightforward and basic” guidance. He said businesses that have already opened as part of early phases have “been responsible for the most part” in their interpretation and implementation of the advice.

“We’ll expect and hope that we’ll see that continuing pattern of responsible adherence to the spirit of the public health guidance,” he said.

He said he wanted to remind people that the guidance is in place “for good public health reasons” and that restrictions will not be recommended for any longer than officials think is necessary. 

“There isn’t an over focus on a setting in which the gathering takes place – a range of other things need to happen. People have to travel, have to get on public transport, have to mingle as they go in and out etc,” he explained.

“It’s not just about the setting, for example of a cinema or a church, it’s about how you get there and all of the other activities that happen in association with it.”

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