A year ago, religious leaders were forced to quickly plan virtual services for Easter, Ramadan and Passover as a deadly pandemic was getting its grip on the U.S.
Now, as a small but growing percentage of Americans have been vaccinated and gatherings are allowed in many states, the faithful are greeting the 2021 holy season with a mix of excitement, enthusiasm – and caution.
“It’s a really complex kind of situation,” said Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. “This is a situation where people really need to very carefully navigate their risk with their family and their friends.”
Last week, Johns Hopkins University reported 22.5% more U.S. cases than the week before, with 33 states reporting rising case counts. Meanwhile on Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said hospitalizations and deaths are once again on the rise, after previously warning of a spring surge if Americans do not take precautions.
Churches, synagogues and mosques across the country are taking a variety of approaches to recognizing the holidays amid the pandemic. Few have lifted capacity limits completely while others are offering options for virtual or socially-distanced celebrations.
Passover, which marks the liberation of enslaved Jewish people in Egypt, began Sunday and ends April 4, when Christians celebrate Easter, the resurrection of Christ. Orthodox Easter is May 2.
Meanwhile, the holy month of Ramadan will span from April 12 to May 12 and culminate with Eid al-Fitr, which will break the month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fasts for Muslims.
“There’s a real, I think, anticipation and eagerness for a lot of people to return,” said Donald Iloff Jr., spokesperson and senior adviser for Lakewood Church in Houston. “There’s a lot of energy when you worship with other people around you who are worshipping as well … and I think that’s what’s been missed.”
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Lakewood Church, one of the country’s largest evangelical non-denominational Christian congregations, is preparing for a large in-person gathering for Easter. Last year, there were no in-person services and, instead, a special livestreamed program was organized with Tyler Perry and Mariah Carey.
After restarting in-person services at 25% capacity about two months ago, the church has seen attendance grow to 50% and a larger crowd is expected on Easter Sunday, Iloff said. Lakewood has a capacity of 16,000 for each service and it hosts three services every Sunday.
Texas is among the states to recently reopen, allowing business and places of worship to operate at full capacity.
“A lot of people, you know, are a little bit concerned about coming back,” said Iloff, which he said helps explain why the church continues to see “huge” numbers of people watching the services online.
‘Seder-to-go’ kits among ways to observe Passover safely
Chabad of Paradise Valley in Arizona, offered its community Seder-to-go kits.
They are part of an “international effort to ensure that every Jew wishing to celebrate with a Passover Seder can easily do so,” according to Chabad.com. The kits include a Seder guide; full Seder plate with bitter herb, charoset, egg, bone, vegetable and salt water; and shmurah matzah, a special Passover bread.
Rabbi Shlomo Levertov said the community had hoped that enough members would be vaccinated to be able to have a safe communal Passover.
“On a normal year, we have a public Seder. People want to join, then they can join,” he said. “… But this year because there are less communal Seders in town and because less people are having other people over, we offered Seder kits to-go, which has all the items that you would need to create a Seder in your house.”
One of the recipients of a Seder kit, Barry Lyons, 66, said he is spending Passover by himself for the first time this year.
“Through the kindness of the rabbi, I have a one-man Seder preparation kit. I will at least be able to do the four cups of wine and say a few of the prayers by myself and that’ll be sufficient,” he said.
Typically, Lyons spends Seder with his family, but since he had just moved to Arizona for health reasons, most of his family and friends were out of state. As he received his kit, he said he got a call from a friend in Chicago who had been released from the hospital after four months battling COVID-19.
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In Sarasota, Florida, Temple Emanu-El was also offering the kits to more than 200 families. Rabbi Elaine Glickman said the mood this year will be significantly different than it was in 2020.
“There’s really a sense of hope,” Glickman said. “There’s a sense that we have been in exile and there will be somewhat of a freedom and liberation and a redemption.”
CDC still cautions against large events even as more Americans get vaccinated
More than 143 million vaccines have been administered to Americans, and several states are expanding vaccine eligibility to those 16 and older. Meanwhile President Joe Biden has directed states to make all adults eligible for a vaccine by May 1.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises those fully vaccinated to still avoid medium and large gatherings if possible. The agency says if people do choose to go to such events, they should still wear a mask, wash their hands frequently and socially distance.
While Lakewood Church is not mandating masks or restricting capacity, Iloff said the church is encouraging people to wear masks and socially distance.
Guidance from Texas’ health department encourages continued safety measures, similar to that of the CDC, though Gov. Greg Abbott rescinded the state’s mask mandate March 10.
“Instead of shaking hands, a lot of fist bumps are happening or elbow bumps (and) you see little hugging, but not a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot of love there, but people are not being as demonstrative.”
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With states expanding at-home gathering limits, many Americans are excited to reunite with family and friends they haven’t seen in a year.
In Connecticut, where up to 25 people can gather indoors and 100 outdoors, Tonya Dames said she will be hosting an Easter celebration with tables inside and outside.
“Families are past missing each other, so being able to have those gatherings to reconnect family and friends in general, I’m all for it,” Dames said.
Others are not jumping at the chance to host such gatherings.
Jane Panus from Lisbon, Connecticut, said “emotionally (eased restrictions) feel great, since we’ve been isolated for way too long.” But because she’s battling pancreatic cancer and taking care of her elderly mother, she said she’s still being “cautious.”
Majumder, the epidemiologist, encouraged people to limit the number of households coming together.
“Super spreading events typically happen when you have lots of different households that are coming together under one roof,” she said.
Ramadan will be ‘difficult like last year’
Majumder said her family will be “sticking to two households under one roof” for Ramadan, and if they end up expanding as more relatives get vaccinated, the celebration will be outdoors to reduce risks.
Those observing Ramadan may be in a prolonged predicament. It is a month-long celebration that traditionally includes breaking the sunrise-to-sunset fast daily with iftar, a large dinner gathering.
After closing its doors for Ramadan last year, Masjid Al-Salaam in Dearborn, Michigan, will be hosting in-person services next month. But food will be served in drive-thru style.
“It’s going to be difficult like last year,” said Nabeel Bahalwan, a volunteer at the mosque. But, “day by day, we follow the instructions of the CDC, Dr. (Anthony) Fauci and wherever we get instruction from.”
Michigan also eased restrictions recently, including allowing 50% capacity at restaurants and in-person learning, but places of worship are exempt from the mask mandate and capacity restrictions.
Bahalwan said the in-person prayers will follow social-distancing guidelines and be scaled back to about one-third capacity. In a normal year, he said the mosque hosts around 500 to 800 worshipers.
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The mosque is also emphasizing that “it is better to get vaccinated to come to the service,” he said, adding that the mosque has been helping people register for the vaccine.
With vaccine hesitation in minority communities still widespread, Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, chairman for the Michigan Muslim Community Council, said “persistent education” is starting to pay off.
“We’re pushing and advising them to take it, not only for their sake but for their loved one sake,” he said. “We’re not out of the woods yet. That’s the message we give the community that COVID is not gone.
“The new normal will be good enough for people to celebrate and be happy.”
Kaanita Iyer reporting for USA TODAY. Miguel Torres reporting for The Arizona Republic.
Contributing: Mike Stucka, USA TODAY; Matt Grahn, The Norwich (Connecticut) Bulletin; and Earle Kimel, The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.