HUDSON — Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic that has infected 437,971 and killed 32,982 people in New York state, most places of worship throughout the city have implemented the required social-distancing and mask-wearing state mandates, but not all.
Mandatory safety requirements in New York’s phase 4 reopening during the pandemic prohibit holding or shaking hands with anyone who does not live in the same household during prayer or services, and limit indoor services to have no more than 33% of the building’s capacity. In addition, the mandate requires people from separate households to maintain at least 6 feet of distance from one another, and 12 feet when singing, and to wear face coverings when social distancing is not possible.
The Columbia County Department of Health has received some complaints about services not adhering to state safety mandates at Rock Solid Church, 334 Union St., Department of Health Director Jack Mabb said, adding he passed the complaints on to the Hudson Code Enforcement Department, which is protocol. Local code enforcement officials have the authority to enforce the state safety mandates, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order.
Craig Haigh, Hudson’s city code enforcement officer, confirmed he received a complaint from the county health department a few weeks ago, but the complaint was not listed as a priority because it was based on phase 2 state health reopening regulations that are no longer valid. But the complaint has been an open investigation, he said. His department began the investigation by reaching out to the church and did not receive a response, Haigh said.
Haigh does not plan to shut down Rock Solid Church.
“It’s my intention to go get this church involved so they understand what they need to do to follow the guidelines of the code to make it so people are safe. Now if they don’t do that, that’s a whole different level,” Haigh said. “Then, we’ll have to deal with that at a different level.”
Hudson Police Chief L. Edward Moore said while the responsibility of COVID-19 complaints falls largely in the hands of the municipal code department, some is taken to the police. Moore has not received any complaints about churches, he said, adding those complaints should be going through the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff David Bartlett did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Between 120 and 150 people, ranging in age from infants to seniors, attended a service at the church Aug. 23 with no social distancing where they sang, danced, shook hands, hugged and stood shoulder to shoulder without wearing masks. A box of masks by the door appeared to be virtually unused. Out of the more than 100 people at the service, two people wore masks, and of the two, one wore it around their chin.
“Turn to someone and welcome them in the name of Jesus, and then turn to somebody on your other side and welcome them,” the Rev. Jaron Halsted said at the start of the service, which could be seen on a Facebook Live video.
Later in the service, Halsted and people he baptized hugged without masks.
When he was speaking to the congregation at the end of the service, Halsted said his wife was in quarantine because of her out-of-state travels, “because you know, we have to follow the rules,” he said. The congregation broke out in laughter.
Halsted took a face mask out of his pocket during the service.
“You can still preach through one of these,” Halsted said, holding up the mask, without putting the mask on. “You might have to preach a little louder. That’s good, maybe more people will hear you. But you’re not stopped from proclaiming the truth. And Jesus said if you proclaim the truth you’ll set people free.”
The church’s website has no information about COVID-19 restrictions and church officials declined to comment about implementing the state mandates.
Regarding state mandate occupancy restrictions at the church, it does not have an occupancy limit, according to the Hudson Code Enforcement Department. The lack of a limit is because none has been set as a result of having been built before the city’s charter was established, said Craig Haigh, Hudson’s city code enforcement officer. Mayor Kamal Johnson echoed Haigh’s explanation.
“It was brought to our attention that there is a complaint of overcapacity and our response to that complaint is, how do we know it’s over capacity when we don’t know what the occupancy load is?” Haigh said. “And when we reviewed our record, that’s when we found out there is not an occupancy load,”
Haigh and the owner of the building, who is listed on the deed as Halsted, were scheduled to meet Sept. 4 to set an occupancy limit.
“The owner of the church didn’t even realize it, ‘really, we gotta have an occupancy load? We didn’t know that,’” Haigh said the owner of the church said.
Many people in Hudson are not aware that their buildings need an occupancy limit, Haigh said.
“Some places existed before the charter so they may have not gotten their occupancy, but we’re working on it,” Johnson said. “But also we have to also acknowledge that they [the code department] are a small department that has been pretty busy in COVID times. I know on this particular issue [Rock Solid Church], they are rectifying it.”
Mabb said that even without an occupancy load on record for a building, it is reasonable for someone to base a complaint on an estimate.
“It seems strange to me, no matter when it [the church] was built,” Mabb said about the church not having an occupancy limit on record.
The state health mandates were put in place to protect people, who may be jeopardizing their health by not following the restrictions, Mabb said.
“By having that many people assembling, not wearing masks and congregating together, they’re playing with their health,” Mabb said. “From a public-health perspective, the church is playing Russian Roulette with their practitioners.”
The COVID-19 virus spreads through droplets, more of which are released when singing, Mabb added.
“These things start in the choir,” he said. “You expel particles at a higher concentration.”
Christ Church Episcopal, 431 Union St., Hudson; First Presbyterian Church, 369 Warren St., Hudson; and Trinity United Methodist Church, 555 Joslen Blvd., have eliminated singing from their services, along with others implementing COVID-19 safety procedures.
Christ Church Episcopal had about 30 people at its service Aug. 30. Every other pew was tied off to enforce social distancing and a greeter at the door kept track of visitors. People wore masks and congregation singing was eliminated from the service.
“Singing seems to be a higher-risk activity,” Senior Warden Phillip Schwartz said.
There has been typically about 40 people at services in August, Schwartz said, adding they have not held coffee hour after the service and church meetings are held virtually on Zoom.
Christ Church Episcopal hosted two Sunday services in pre-COVID-19 times, but has cut that number in half to allow any potential virus on prayer books to die between each weekly service and provide ample time seats and floors to be cleaned, he said.
“There are things you can’t effectively sanitize and that’s why we cut back to one service,” Schwartz said.
Church officials considered a digital prayer book option, but decided it would be best to stick to one service for the time being.
The church has a food pantry, and despite it being busy, they have maintained a no-contact pick-up system where visitors check off the items they want on a clipboard and the secretary brings the items outside to them, Schwartz said.
First Presbyterian Church has also eliminated congregation singing during its services. A soloist sings unmasked about 30 feet away from everyone else in the church, the Rev. Kathryn Beilke said. The services are completely contactless and attendees do not touch anything, she added.
Masks that cover both the mouth and nose are required to attend and marks on the pews guide visitors to social distance from both the front and behind, Beilke said.
The services have been shortened and it has temporarily halted its fellowship/coffee hour after the service. People are encouraged to socialize outdoors after the services, Beilke said. The building normally has a capacity of about 500 people and about 25-30 people have been attending Sunday services, she said.
Roughly 15 people were present at the beginning of the Aug. 30 service.
Trinity United Methodist Church has an organist who sings behind a Plexiglas partition at services and there is no congregant singing, the Rev. Ken Coddington said.
While the church has been taking attendance to maintain a limit of 45 people, the maximum number who have been attending has been 24, Coddington said. Every other pew is blocked off and congregants over the age of 65 or who are immunocompromised are encouraged to attend virtually, Coddington said.
About 25 people, who wore masks, were in the church and congregants social distanced from one another.
People have been complying with mask and social-distancing rules because they want to come to services, Coddington said.
St. Mary’s Holy Trinity Parish, Congregation Anshe Emeth and the Hudson Islamic Center have also implemented COVID-19 safety procedures.
St. Mary’s Holy Trinity Parish, 429 E. Allen St., Hudson, had about 30 people in the church at its Monday morning Mass on Aug. 24. All congregants wore masks and sat in every other pew, with space between each person. The pews were disinfected immediately after the service, and the church maintained a contact-tracing sheet.
“All visitors will be required to wear a mask, observe physical distancing (6 feet) and proper sanitizing as required. A daily log of visitors’ names and telephone numbers will be kept for contact-tracing purposes,” according to the St. Mary’s website.
Congregation Anshe Emeth, 240 Joslen Blvd., no longer has refreshments after Shabbat services. Only five people attended Aug. 28. Everyone wore masks with the exception of the rabbi when he was leading the service, distanced from visitors because the first few rows of seating were blocked off to maintain social distancing. Congregants each sat in their own row and the congregation typically has a small turnout at services, and recently average fewer than 10 attendees, Rabbi Daniel Fried said.
The building has a capacity of 160 people and 40 during COVID-19, he added. Congregants must wear masks in the building, but are allowed to remove their masks in their seats when they are socially distance, Fried said. The synogogue will livestream high holiday services in September and reserved in-person spaces will be available.
“Last year, we wanted to fill every seat,” Fried said.
“It is a whole new world,” he said referring to this year, where they do not want people sitting beside one another.
The Hudson Islamic Center, 35 N. 3rd St., Hudson, has limited prayer to 50 people: 25 inside, and 25 outside, said Mohammed Abdul Hannan, the mosque’s president.
About 5-10 people attend prayer on Sunday through Thursday. There are two afternoon prayer times on Fridays to accommodate capacity. Two volunteers ensure people wear masks, use hand sanitizer and bring their own prayer mats and shoe bags, Hannan said. Attendees under 14 years old and over 65 years old, or anyone feeling sick, are not currently allowed at prayer, and the mosque has implemented a separate entrance and exit as a way to control foot traffic.
Natasha Vaughn and Matt Fortunato contributed to this report.