In a March 12 statement from the Archdiocese of Washington, Archbishop Wilton Gregory announced that in response to public health recommendations from local government leaders regarding the potential spread of coronavirus, Masses open to the public in all archdiocesan parishes, missions and campus ministries will not be celebrated starting this Saturday, March 14, until further notice. Weddings and funerals may proceed but should be limited to immediate family.

And following public safety directives made by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state superintendent Dr. Karen Salmon, Archbishop Gregory announced that all Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington – which includes the District of Columbia and the five surrounding Maryland counties of St. Mary’s, Charles, Calvert, Prince George’s and Montgomery – will be closed from March 16 through March 27.

Archbishop Gregory also issued a dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass during this time to all parishioners of the Archdiocese of Washington.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s March 12 statement followed major actions to limit the spread of coronavirus taken earlier that day by Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who issued an order that “social, community, spiritual, religious, recreational, leisure, and sporting gatherings and events of more than 250 people are hereby prohibited at all locations and venues, including but not limited to parades, festivals, conventions and fundraisers.”

Gov. Hogan also ordered that “planned large gatherings and events must be canceled or postponed until after termination of the state of emergency and the proclamation of the catastrophic health emergency has been rescinded.”

Also on March 12, Dr. Salmon, Maryland’s state superintendent of schools, directed that beginning on Monday March 16, all public schools throughout Maryland will close through Friday March 27.

Gov. Hogan had declared a state of emergency in Maryland on March 5, after three people in Montgomery County had been diagnosed with the 2019 novel coronavirus. On March 11, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had declared a public health emergency in the District of Columbia, recommending that non-essential mass gatherings, including conferences and conventions, be postponed or cancelled through March 31. 

In the archdiocese’s statement, Archbishop Gregory said, “We are aware of the rapidly developing district and state guidelines regarding the coronavirus. My number one priority as your archbishop is to ensure the safety and health of all who attend our Masses, the children in our schools, and those we welcome through our outreach and services. Please know that this decision does not come lightly to close our schools or cancel Masses.”

Archbishop Gregory added, “We are profoundly saddened that we are not able to celebrate our sacraments as a community for the time being, but we know Christ remains with us at all times – specifically in times of worry like this.”

Washington’s archbishop also noted that, “I have made available pastoral and spiritual resources as well as the TV Mass on our website that I encourage you to use. I also invite you to join us for Mass and prayer via livestream in our social media. May the peace of Christ settle any anxieties and fear we may have. Let us continue to pray for the people whose lives have been impacted by the coronavirus as well as those who continue to care for them.”

As a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus, many Catholic archdioceses and dioceses across the United States have canceled public Masses. In addition to the Archdiocese of Washington, those taking that step as of March 14 included the archdioceses of Seattle; Boston; Detroit; Baltimore; Chicago; Newark, New Jersey; and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the dioceses of Salt Lake City; San Diego; Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia; and Little Rock, Arkansas. Church officials have likewise adopted strong precautionary measures throughout the world, and the Vatican has announced that the public will not be admitted to papal Holy Week liturgies this year, after public gatherings including Masses have been banned in Italy through April 3.

The Archdiocese of Washington has a special web page at adw.org/coronavirus offering the latest updates on the situation.

Also on March 12, William Ryan, the secretary for Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, sent letters to parents and guardians of students attending Catholic schools in the District of Columbia and in the Maryland counties of St. Mary's, Charles, Calvert, Prince George's and Montgomery, notifying them that following the directives of local government leaders, all archdiocesan Catholic schools and early learning centers in Maryland and all archdiocesan Catholic schools in the District of Columbia will be closed from Monday March 16 through March 27.

“Because this continues to be a fluid situation, please continue to listen to local news reports and obtain information from your school principal” or early learning center director, Ryan wrote, adding, “assignments will be provided by the school to continue student learning. Please check the school's website or other communications for further details.”

The archdiocese's announcement affects parish elementary schools and early learning centers and the archdiocesan high schools, Archbishop Carroll in Washington, D.C., and Don Bosco Cristo Rey in Takoma Park, Maryland. Independent Catholic schools in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding Maryland counties, most of which are sponsored by religious orders, likewise have announced that they will be closed for set time periods due to the coronavirus, and those schools also announced plans for online learning for students at this time. 

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) as a global pandemic. As of that day, the Washington Post reported that more than 125,000 cases of coronavirus had been confirmed worldwide, causing more than 4,600 deaths, and the United States had more than 1,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in 39 states, with more than 30 deaths. Most fatal incidences of the coronavirus have involved the elderly or people with underlying medical conditions.  

In a March 13 letter to members of the Archdiocese of Washington, Father Daniel Carson, the archdiocese's vicar general and moderator of the Curia, wrote,  “This decision (to cancel Masses and close Catholic schools at this time) was not an easy decision. Archbishop Gregory recognizes his obligation to ensure the health of the faithful, both spiritual and physical. By implementing effective social distancing measures the archdiocese supports the common good of all citizens and prioritizes the dignity of every human life, especially those most vulnerable at this time. We know that many Catholic faithful are saddened or upset by the decision to cancel Masses. We ask for your public support and fervent prayer, especially on behalf of the sick and dying. The decisions of the Archdiocese are based on the recommendations from local public health professionals and by legal requirements from the local governments. The decisions will continue to be assessed and reevaluated based on both public health officials and local government restrictions and guidelines. We are continually monitoring the situation and will communicate any updates.”

On March 6, priests of the Archdiocese of Washington were sent a letter from Father Carson recommending that several precautions against the possible spread of coronavirus be taken at local Catholic churches and institutions during Mass, including refraining from shaking hands during the Sign of Peace, refraining from holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer, ceasing distribution of the Precious Blood at Communion, removing holy water from fonts, strongly urging the faithful to receive the Eucharist only in their hands instead of on the tongue, and for priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to practice good hand hygiene before and after the distribution of Holy Communion.

That letter also noted that “anyone who is ill or suspects that he or she is ill, should refrain from participation in public activities, including Mass. If a person refrains from Sunday Mass due to illness, they are dispensed from the Sunday obligation.”

Also on March 6, the Archdiocese of Washington’s special web page at adw.org/coronavirus noted that dispensation from attending Sunday Mass, in addition to including the ill or those who suspect they might be ill, would also include those considered at-risk to serious complications from the coronavirus – people 60 and older or people with chronic illness, immune system deficiencies or other underlying health conditions. Health authorities have likewise encouraged those vulnerable populations to refrain from large public gatherings.

The Archdiocese of Washington produces a weekly Sunday TV Mass filmed in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for Catholics who are unable to be physically present with a local worshipping community for the Sunday Eucharistic Liturgy.

The Mass airs every Sunday at 10:30 a.m. on WDCW-50, which people can view on that channel and at that time if they have no cable, or if they are Dish or Direct TV subscribers. For people who are Comcast subscribers, the Mass can be viewed on Channel 23 in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, and on Channel 3 in Prince George's County and Southern Maryland. For those with Verizon TV service, it can be viewed on Channel 3, and for those with RCN, on Channel 15. The Sunday TV Mass is also available to view through free online streaming at adw.org/tvmass and on the National Shrine's YouTube channel.

Founded in 1939, the Archdiocese of Washington is home to more than 655,000 Catholics who worship in 139 parishes located  in Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding Maryland counties of Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s. Nearly 27,000 students attend the 93 Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Washington. Catholic Charities of the archdiocese is the largest non-public social service organization in the region, serving nearly 143,000 people each year.