Dane Co. churches must maintain capacity of 50 people or face up to $1K fine

Published: May. 29, 2020 at 9:08 PM CDT
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Religious entities holding mass gatherings in Dane County must maintain up to 25 percent of their capacity or have 50 people inside their building at a time, whichever is less, or face a penalty up to $1,000 plus court costs.

City of Madison Assistant City Attorney Marci Paulsen insisted to NBC15 News that religious entities are being treated the same as other essential businesses, per Public Health Madison & Dane County's stay-at-home order issued two weeks ago.

According to the "Forward Dane" order, all places that hold a mass gathering, including places of worship, concerts, movie theaters, conventions and other venues, are limited to the same limit of 25 percent of capacity up to 50 people, whichever is less. A "mass gathering" is defined as a “planned event with a large number of individuals in attendance, such as a concert, festival, meetings, training, conference, religious service, or sporting event," according to the "Forward Dane" order.

The public health department says it is asking for voluntary compliance, and since issuing the order says it has not issued any citations to any organizations or businesses.

"We hope that everyone continues to voluntarily comply with the Order and take an active role in helping with the suppression of this virus," Assistant City Attorney Paulsen said in an email to NBC15 News.

But the Rev. Greg Ihm of the Madison Diocese

earlier Friday alleging that religious entities are not being treated the same as businesses by the stay-at-home order.

The Reverend argued that churches, which were previously determined as essential organizations before the "Forward Dane" order, are now ordered to maintain the same capacity as previously non-essential businesses like fitness centers and movie theaters. Ihm seems to allude in his post to social media that because churches were deemed essential in the eyes of the stay-at-home laws, they should have greater capacity, like grocery stores and pharmacies.

Ihm continues that this order is unfair because, for example, a 1,000-person capacity church can now only allow 50 people indoors, which is effectively 5 percent of its capacity, according to Ihm.

"As faithful we have a right to the Sacraments and an obligation to the health and safety of the faithful," Ihm posted to social media. "The Church is taking every precaution for the safety and well fair of the faithful that has been placed on other essential businesses but are not receiving equal treatment."

Ihm went on to allege that the public health department would send out "government watchers" to parishes to keep tabs on compliance. However, Assistant City Attorney Paulsen as well as Public Health officials tell NBC15 News that enforcement will remain voluntary.

"There are no 'government watchers' who will be policing any business or religious entity. In the shared spirit of keeping our friends, neighbors, and loved ones well, we ask everyone to identify ways to comply with these orders to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19," according to Public Health in an email.