The Universalist Unitarian Church on Silver Street in Waterville has conducted its services virtually since the middle of March 2020. Morning Sentinel file

Bishop Robert Deeley of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland objected Thursday to Gov. Janet Mills’ new executive order concerning gathering limits for churches, but Waterville-area religious leaders were split in their reactions to the governor’s declaration.

Under Mills’ order, houses of worship may now accommodate five people per 1,000 square feet of space, or up to 50 people, whichever is greater. Previously, the number of people who could gather at houses of worship was limited to 50.

The limit of five people per 1,000 square feet is the same that applies to retail locations.

“The way the mandate reads, it really doesn’t change very much,” the Rev. Mark Tanner of Skowhegan Federated Church said. “I can have 50 people in here, and it’s just not enough. We’ve had great opportunity to do worship here, and I am happy to do it.”

Tanner said he is “ready to have more people in church.” The Skowhegan Federated Church’s 5,500-square-foot sanctuary would allow only 27 people, but it is allowed to have 50. Tanner said not having the opportunity to go to church is a “mental health issue” for many in central Maine.

“It’s just way too long, and you have people sitting at home thinking, ‘When is it going to end?'” Tanner said. “There’s too much isolation. The loneliness is pervasive. It’s got to end. It’s got to change.”

In the statement released by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Deeley said of Maine’s 141 Catholic churches, fewer than 10 will see an increase in capacity levels.

The bishop cited Vermont, New Hampshire and Connecticut as states that are at 50% capacity, but Mills’ office will not discuss his suggestion that churches be allowed to be at 25% in Maine.

“This ruling is unacceptable and does nothing to provide relief to our parishes and parishioners,” Deeley said in the diocese’s prepared announcement. “Many Maine Catholics who were frustrated by the previous limits are now perplexed and upset. The governor must reconsider this and go to a percentage model.”

Dennis Perkins, president of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Waterville, said the church’s services are virtual and will remain so until the Universalist Unitarian Society comes out with new suggestions.

“We have been doing virtual Zoom services since the middle of last March, and, to be expected, we miss being next to each other for Sunday services,” Perkins said. “Our take is we want to be the best citizens we can be, and we are absolutely supportive of the things Gov. Mills is doing. We think our job primarily as citizens is to do what we can to protect ourselves and everyone else in Maine.”

State Sen. Scott Cyrway, a Republican from Albion who represents District 16, declined to comment Thursday on Mills’ executive order.

“We have to go by what the people voted for, and we voted for this governor,” Cyrway said. “The governor is trying to do the best she can under the (Center for Disease Control & Prevention) guidelines, and I can’t judge one way or the other whether it’s good or bad.”

Holly Weidner, a former clerk and COVID-19 subcommittee member at the Vassalboro Friends Meeting, said the Quaker meeting offers both in-person and virtual interaction.

They allow 40 people for meetings and follow COVID-19 protocols, she said. There is no singing in the meetinghouse right now, and the Friends invested in a new microphone system to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We probably have about an average of 24 people in attendance all told between Zoom and present,” Weidner said. “It probably won’t change anything because we don’t have a demand from people to come to the meetinghouse itself.”

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