HAMBURG, N.Y. (WKBW-TV) — With two weeks to go until Christmas, local houses of worship are working to put together plans to accommodate parishioners for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services - normally two of the busiest church-going days of the year.
"We understand that some people want to get together with masks and social distancing," explained Rev. Kevin Beers, pastor of the Watermark Wesleyan Church in Hamburg.
This year there is a lot of confusion about what exactly the rules are.
When Erie County was declared an "orange zone," churches in the county stopped having in-person gatherings. Shortly afterward, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Governor Cuomo's capacity restrictions on houses of worship, in areas where the infection rate was climbing, were too severe compared to other businesses.
As a result, many Erie County churches reopened their doors with limits on the number of people allowed in.
But not all churches decided it was the right thing to do.
7 Eyewitness News Reporter Ed Reilly checked with some churches in the Hamburg area to see how they planned to handle Christmas worship.
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI CHURCH, ATHOL SPRINGS
Father Ross Syracuse, OFM Conv, said his parish is planning to offer both live stream and in-person Masses on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
To control the number of people in the church, Rev. Syracuse said approximately 100 tickets have been printed for the Masses. People will only be allowed into the church with a ticket.
"We thought this would be the most convenient," said Rev. Syracuse.
The Franciscan Friar said he will accommodate any overflow in the parish's social center.
St. Francis of Assisi Church received special permission from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo to have a 2 p.m. Christmas Eve Mass to accommodate the limited number of people allowed inside the church. Usually, Catholic Christmas Eve Masses are not allowed before 4 p.m.
People interested in a ticket can get one after weekly Mass or by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to the parish office.
EPISCOPAL DIOCESES OF WNY AND NORTHWESTERN PENNSYLVANIA
Bishop Sean Rowe told Ed Reilly that he asked all his congregations to keep their buildings closed for Christmas.
The Bishop admitted that not being able to attend Christmas worship with your family does change the Christmas experience, but he feels it is more important to protect the health safety of everyone in the community.
"A lot of people want to get back into the building. Look, we love our church buildings and their sacred spaces, but right now, for the sake of your neighbor, we can't do it," explained Bishop Rowe.
Many Episcopal churches are increasing efforts to offer streaming options for Christmas worship.
WATERMARK WESLEYAN CHURCH, HAMBURG
The four campuses of the Watermark Wesleyan Church would normally seat 4 to 5 thousand people for Christmas services.
This year, the church is limiting in-person Christmas worship to 33% capacity with a big emphasis on streaming.
Pastor Kevin Beers told Ed Reilly it is a challenge figuring out the rules during the pandemic and his team is trying to navigate the pandemic in hope of doing the "wise thing."
With a big emphasis on online worship, Pastor Beers and his staff are putting together 'Christmas Kits' for parishioners to pick up at the church's Hamburg location. The kits include items (such as candles, light sticks, Bible activity books for kids, crayons) that families can use at home while watching services online.
"To have the experience they have in-person here, in their own homes and living rooms with their loved ones," added Pastor Beers.
LOW TURNOUT FOR IN-PERSON WORSHIP
Both Rev. Syracuse and Pastor Beers said they do not expect a big crowd on Christmas for in-person worship because many families, especially those with kids, are still hesitant and scared to return to churches due to COVID-19.