After three cases of coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) were confirmed in Montgomery County, Maryland, on March 5, the Archdiocese of Washington sent a letter the next day to priests recommending precautions to be taken during Masses at area parishes and Catholic institutions, involving sharing the the Sign of Peace, praying the Our Father, receiving Communion and removing holy water.

The letter sent to priests serving in the Archdiocese of Washington from Father Daniel Carson, the archdiocese's Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia, recommended that at this time during Masses, people:

- Refrain from shaking hands during the Sign of Peace (a bow or verbal gesture is appropriate)

- Refrain from holding hands during the Lord's Prayer

- Cease distribution of the Precious Blood (the Catholic Church teaches that Christ is fully present under both species of the Blessed Sacrament)

In addition, the letter asked that that the faithful be strongly urged “to receive the Holy Eucharist only in their hands instead of on the tongue to mitigate any transmission of saliva.” 

The letter also asked that parishes remove holy water from the holy water fonts. 

The letter also reminded priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist to “practice good hand hygiene, washing their hands before Mass and using hand sanitizer, available in a discreet location near the sanctuary, to cleanse hands before and after the distribution of Holy Communion.”

Regarding people who may feel sick, the letter 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.”

A March 6 letter was sent to priests serving in the Archdiocese of Washington, which recommended several precautions in the wake of the coronavirus, including refraining from holding hands during the sign of peace. (CS file photo)

Father Carson noted that the communication was being sent “to address the ongoing concern of the coronavirus (COVID-19), which continues to be a fluid situation.” He wrote that the archdiocese will continue to monitor the situation with an interdisciplinary team, including health professionals.

One week earlier, on Feb. 28, the archdiocese issued a statement on the coronavirus, reminding people that during Mass they were under no obligation to shake hands during the Sign of Peace or to receive Communion from the chalice. That letter also reminded Catholics that anyone who is ill is dispensed from the obligation to attend Mass. The archdiocese offers a TV Mass airing Sundays at 10:30 a.m. on WDCW-50. Comcast subscribers in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County can view the Mass on Channel 23, and on Channel 3 in Prince George's County and Southern Maryland. 

The Archdiocese of Washington has a special web page at summarizing these precautions with a link to further information on the coronavirus. 

The archdiocese's website also states that: 

“Anyone who is ill, suspects he or she is ill, or is  considered vulnerable (people 60+ years of age or people with chronic  illness, immune system deficiencies or other underlying health  conditions) should refrain from participation in public activities,  including Mass. If you need to refrain from Sunday Mass due to these  reasons, you are dispensed from the Sunday obligation.”

Government leaders and health officials have encouraged the general public to stay calm and informed about the virus.

Also on March 6, William Ryan, the Secretary for Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Washington, sent a letter to parents and guardians, telling them that the Catholic Schools Office, in conjunction with Catholic schools in the archdiocese, has a plan in place to continue student learning if any school needs to close for a time period due to COVID-19. He said the Catholic Schools Office will follow the guidance of the Centers for Disease Control and local health departments in determining potential school closures.

Ryan also noted that schools “are actively cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, encouraging those who are not well to stay home, and promoting good health hygiene.” Those practices, he wrote, include washing hands during the day, covering mouths with a tissue when sneezing or coughing, not sharing food or drinks, avoiding handshakes, and encouraging a balanced diet, enough sleep and regular exercise.

The archdiocese's Secretary for Catholic Schools also encouraged parents to make use of guidelines from the National Association of School Nurses and National Association of School Psychologists regarding talking to children about the coronavirus.

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.