Physicians of the Portland Catholic Medical Guild sent a letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown Nov. 20 conveying their concerns about the new restrictions on communal worship. They are most worried about how the latest rules, which limit faith gatherings to 25 people for two to four weeks, impact psychological well-being.

“We understand the need for measures to limit the spread of COVID-19, and we appreciate the governor’s proactive response to rising case counts,” read the letter from the medical guild, a part of the Catholic Medical Association and the largest organization of Catholic physicians in Oregon. “Nevertheless, we know it is also important to consider the unintended consequences of those measures, especially on mental health.”

The letter was signed by Drs. Saad Jazrawi, guild president; William Toffler, a regional director; and Paul Cieslak, state director. Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, chaplain for the organization, and 42 additional guild members also signed the letter.

The Catholic doctors said it is appropriate to place limits on Oregonians’ social gatherings and other activities. Brown’s new restrictions are an effort to stem the rising number of coronavirus cases across the state. The increase reflects a nationwide trend: The United States reported almost 190,000 new cases Nov. 19, and hospitalizations hit yet another record high.

But members of the medical guild said Oregon’s latest restrictions on religious services will do more harm than good. They explained that worship spaces typically are designed to hold hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of people. “To restrict all religious gatherings to only 25 people, regardless of the size of the space available, is both unnecessary and unsupported by data,” wrote the doctors.

They said many churches, synagogues, temples and mosques can accommodate larger numbers while still maintaining appropriate social distancing.

Churches already require masks, restrict access to individuals with symptoms, and follow sanitizing protocols and procedures for contact tracing, as well as enforce other restrictions (for example, no congregational singing).

“The data demonstrate that when these evidence-based measures are in place, church attendance is safe,” wrote the doctors, citing an article by Dr. Thomas McGovern, Deacon Timothy Flanigan and Cieslak entitled “Evidence-Based Guidelines to Celebrate Mass Safely are Working.” The piece was published in August on the news site Realclearscience.com.

“A ‘one size fits all’ approach for houses of worship is not only unscientific, it is also unjust,” the doctors said. “When there is no similar limitation placed on grocery or retail stores of varying sizes, the effect is an inordinate restriction on the practice of religion.”

A more logical alternative, they said, would be to permit a percentage occupancy based on physical size and capacity, allowing places of worship to maintain adequate social distancing. This echoed Archbishop Alexander Sample’s plea and is the same protocol used at retail stores and malls. Other states, including Washington, apply it to religious gatherings.

“The holiday season is a difficult time of year for many people, and active practice of a religious faith is a healthy, mature coping mechanism,” the doctors wrote. “As health care professionals representing all medical specialties including mental health, we feel increasingly at a loss to help our patients through these challenging times.”

The doctors pointed to a June survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that documented the heavy toll the pandemic is taking on young people’s mental health. A quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds have reported suicidal thoughts and increased substance abuse. Half reported symptoms consistent with a depressive disorder. Some 13% of Americans said they started or increased substance use to cope with pandemic-related stressors.

“For many individuals, the physical act of attending a worship service provides a sense of purpose, a critical link to our faith community and connection with something larger than ourselves,” wrote the physicians. “This sense of connection becomes even more important when social gatherings are not possible. While better than nothing, videos or Zoom calls are not an adequate substitute for in-person attendance at a house of worship.”

In its current form, Brown’s restrictions for faith-based organizations “deprive the faithful of a reasonable opportunity to access worship services, during the darkest time of what has been a very dark year,the doctors wrote.“We urge Governor Brown and her advisors to reconsider this well-intentioned but unnecessary restriction.”