St. John's Baptist Church, Port-of-Spain

Religious organisations will now be allowed to open the doors of their worship centres for Corpus Christi on Thursday after Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley yesterday announced Government was moving up the previously-announced opening date by one day.

Initial plans were to relax restrictions on religious organisations from this coming Friday but a statement by the Office of the Prime Minister yesterday stated that the change was to accommodate churches celebrating the Christian feast of Corpus Christi.

However, several religious leaders told Guardian Media that it’s unlikely they will be conducting services before Sunday.

“I don’t think any places will be ready that soon because we will have to do the necessary sanitising, and get the necessary equipment, and places are in the process of doing that,” said Father Martin Sirju, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Port-of-Spain.

Father Sirju said the Prime Minister’s initial announcement came as a bit of a surprise, as they were planning for a potential June 22 opening date.

He has expressed gratitude for the opportunity of an earlier opening.

Head of the Council of Shouter Baptists Elders of Trinidad and Tobago Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke also said it was unlikely their centres would be open before the weekend.

“We can’t open up on Friday. We have to prepare the place. We have to sanitise it properly. We have to do that for Sunday, but not this Friday,” she said.

Saying likewise were Vijay Maharaj of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha, and Imam Abdul Haseeb Aziz of the Bamboo Masjid.

Nonetheless, all expressed confidence in having an adequate plan to ensure that the physical health, in addition to the spiritual health, of worshippers were in safe hands coming opening day.

Given that religious institutions will have to adopt new measures, some unique plans are being put in place.

Members of the Catholic church will be meeting on today and tomorrow to finalise logistics, according to Father Sirju.

“People will be asked to wear masks. People will have to sanitise before communion and the priests will have to wear masks in the distribution of communion. Besides, the congregation will leave row-by-row,” he said.

Priests will no longer be offering communion straight to the mouths of the faithful. Instead, the wafers will be placed in the hands of the members.

Sirju expressed confidence that mass could be concluded within an hour, as suggested by the Prime Minister.

“If one was to limit the homily, let’s say to ten minutes or less, seven or eight minutes…we should be finished ” he added.

Depending on the size of the first set of turnouts, congregations may have to be split.

Head of the Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha Vijay Maharaj said a logistical meeting will take place within the next 24 hours.

Confident of being ready by the end of the weekend, he expressed concern about how the temples were going to accommodate returning devotees, without leaving anyone behind.

“A lot of our temples have 200 to 300 attendees per function. How are we going to allow and how are we going to pick persons to attend the devotees? That is the one scenario we are having,” he said.

“Do we have two one-hour services or do we say you this week, or you next week? We can’t do that at this point, it’s too early,” Maharaj added.

By Sunday, he said, more refined guidance should be offered to individual temples about moving forward.

But, hand sanitising stations and hand dryers will likely be installed at some locations.

Masks which can muffle one’s voice could also pose a potential problem for prayer and song recitals, he claimed.

“But the important thing is the devotee or the churchgoer, as the case may be, is feeling part and parcel of the congregation. That is the most important thing to us,” he added.

Imam Abdul Haseeb Haziz said while, as usual, the doors of the Bamboo masjid are open to all, no one will be allowed in without masks.

However, they will be offered masks, should they need one.

“We are also asking them to come with their prayer mat. If they don’t have one, we will provide one. We are hoping we don’t have to turn anyone away,” said the Imam.

Who will be turned back, however, are persons displaying any possible COVID-19 symptoms such as sneezing or coughing.

Unlike other religions, attendees at Islamic services don’t sit on pews or benches, but rather on the floor.

To ensure social distancing, people will be asked to keep six feet apart on their prayer mats.

“We will not be encouraging, embracing or shaking hands. We are not doing that. If you want to do that, go outside. We are not tolerating that,” he added.

Meanwhile, president of the Trinidad and Tobago Council of Evangelical Churches, Reverend Desmond Austin said it’s likely they will be ready by Thursday.

“I think we will be more than ready. There’s a sense of anxiety that is part of this preparedness as well. It’s been a long while we’ve been waiting, so we are more than ready,” he said.