El CENTRO — Catholic churches and schools have loosened their restrictions in the last few weeks as health conditions have gradually improved across the Imperial Valley and the number of vaccinated residents grows.
On April 7, Imperial County moved to the Orange Tier of California’s COVID-19 color-coded tracking system, allowing indoor operations in many places, with some modifications. These include houses of worship, which can operate at 50 percent capacity.
And in a letter to pastors sent May 19, Bishop Robert McElroy loosened some restrictions for indoor services, and outlined further easing set to begin on June 15 and Sept. 1.
As daytime temperatures start to heat up in the Valley, outdoor Mass times have been a moving target, with some parishes’ Saturday vigil Mass times starting later with the sunset and Sunday morning ones starting earlier to beat the heat.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, in El Centro, is the largest Catholic church to hold indoor services in the Valley. The church has required RSVPs since Feb. 21.
By contrast, some churches are now opening up for prayer indoors during their office hours, according to a Brawley Catholic bulletin.
“It’s time to open up our churches and allow the faithful to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament and in prayer,” wrote Father Ed Horning, Pastor of the Catholic Communities of Brawley & Westmorland.
As of May 26, the Imperial County Public Health Department said that 44.3% of the population had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, with nearly 34% fully vaccinated.
The department said there is sufficient supply of vaccines in the county. Department officials, healthcare directors, pastors, principals and non-profit leaders are targeting more rural parts of the county for vaccination.
The health department’s website lists at least seven sites where locals can get COVID-19 vaccines in the three larger cities in the Valley — El Centro, Brawley, and Calexico. These include hospitals, doctors’ offices and pharmacies.
Smaller cities, like Holtville, Imperial and Winterhaven, list only one or two sites, while more rural areas, like Ocotillo, Niland, and the Salton Sea, rely on mobile or pop-up clinics for vaccinations.
Vaccination clinics at parishes
Both El Centro Catholic (ECC) and the Catholic Communities of Brawley & Westmorland held vaccination clinics in May.
Father Mark Edney said ECC held two vaccination clinics thus far, on April 17 and May 8, at St. Mary’s Church. He said 675 people were vaccinated on the first event and close to 1,000 during the second.
ECC held another vaccination clinic event on May 22 at the El Centro Community Center on the east side of town, near Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. ECC partnered with Dr. Tien Vo’s Neighborhood Medical Center and with community organizations to hold that vaccination clinic.
Like in elsewhere in the state, the health department reported that the demand for the vaccine has dropped in the county since April.
Father Edney said that volunteers walked the streets on the east side on May 15, handing out pamphlets in Spanish and English announcing that residents could get the vaccine the following Saturday.
The May 22 event was the first time ECC was be able to offer vaccinations for children ages 12-to-15, following the CDC’s approval of thePfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for that age group.
St. Margaret Mary Church in Brawley hosted a vaccination clinic on May 11 administered by the county health department, said Teresa Moya, director of Catechetical Ministry for the Catholic Communities of Brawley & Westmorland. Moya said the parish is working to host a second dose clinic on June 2 at the church hall.
Parishes in the Valley have still been moving forward with baptisms, First Holy Communions and Confirmations amid the loosened restrictions but have been following state and county guidelines limiting the size of gatherings.
For local Catholic schools, the loosened restrictions means some have been able to allow their students to come back on campus for in-person learning.
Sacred Heart School in Brawley — one of the first schools in the county to allow children back on campus — has had most of its students back on campus since October, said Principal Annalisa Burgos. Some families elected to continue distance learning, she added.
Yet only since March 15 has the school been able to go back to full-time instruction, she said, from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. In October, the school held classes from Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
“We did go inside of the church to pray the Stations of the Cross all through Lent, which they really enjoyed,” Burgos said of the COVID-safe means the school implemented. “(The students) hadn’t been inside the church since before COVID so praying inside was really a good experience for them.”
St. Mary’s School in El Centro was able to welcome back to campus their third, fourth, and fifth graders the week of May 3, said the principal, Father Allan White. The school welcomed back their sixth, seventh, and eighth graders on May 17, he added.
“In fact, it’s been a very joyful return for them,” the Father said. “I ask (the younger grades) every morning and they all shout out, ‘Yes!'”
In Calexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy students have been back on campus since April 20.
“It took awhile for us to make the decision (with a parent survey) but as soon as we could, we came back (on campus),” said the principal ,Sister Maria Elvia González
Like many schools with students back on campus in the county, Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy (OLGA) has a varied schedule.
Sister González said OLGA holds classes four days a week, with a virtual learning day Wednesday, to allow school staff to clean the campus, and allow the large junior high classes to be split.
All three Catholic schools will be having some form of 8th grade graduation, celebrated mostly through graduation Masses and with restricted attendance, the principals said.
“I think that because we have followed all of those protocols, thanks be to God, we’ve been safe,” Burgos said.
Vincent Memorial High School and Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Calexico were both contacted for this story but did not respond.