Excitement and caution: Easter, Passover and Ramadan plans are ‘complex’ this year amid COVID-19 vaccine rollout

A year ago, religious leaders were forced to quickly plan virtual services for Easter, Ramadan and Passover as a deadly pandemic was getting its grip on the U.S.

Now, as a small but growing percentage of Americans have been vaccinated, and gatherings are allowed in many states, the faithful are greeting the 2021 holy season with a mix of excitement, enthusiasm – and caution.

“It’s a really complex kind of situation,” said Maimuna Majumder, a computational epidemiologist and faculty member at Harvard Medical School. “This is a situation where people really need to very carefully navigate their risk with their family and their friends.”

Last week, Johns Hopkins University reported 22.5% more U.S. cases than the week before, with 33 states reporting rising case counts. Meanwhile, on Monday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said hospitalizations and deaths are once again on the rise, after previously warning of a spring surge if Americans do not take precautions.

Churches, synagogues and mosques across the country are taking a variety of approaches to recognizing the holidays amid the pandemic. Few have lifted capacity limits completely, while others are offering options for virtual or socially-distanced celebrations.

Passover, which marks the liberation of enslaved Jewish people in Egypt, began Sunday and ends April 4, when Christians celebrate Easter, the resurrection of Christ. Orthodox Easter is May 2. 

Meanwhile, the holy month of Ramadan will span from April 12 to May 12 and culminate with Eid al-Fitr, which will break the month-long, sunrise-to-sunset fasts for Muslims.

“There’s a real, I think, anticipation and eagerness for a lot of people to return,” said Donald Iloff Jr., spokesperson and senior adviser for Lakewood Church in Houston.  “There’s a lot of energy when you worship with other people around you who are worshipping as well … and I think that’s what’s been missed.”

Q&A: Amid COVID-19, can families safely gather for Passover, Easter?

Lakewood Church, one of the country’s largest evangelical non-denominational Christian congregations, is preparing for a large in-person gathering for Easter. Last year, there were no in-person services and, instead, a special livestreamed program was organized with Tyler Perry and Mariah Carey. 

After restarting in-person services at 25% capacity about two months ago, the church has seen attendance grow to 50%, and a larger crowd is expected on Easter Sunday, Iloff said. Lakewood has a capacity of 16,000 for each service and it hosts three services every Sunday. 

Texas is among the states to recently reopen, allowing business and places of worship to operate at full capacity. 

“A lot of people, you know, are a little bit concerned about coming back,” said Iloff, which he said helps explain why the church continues to see “huge” numbers of people watching the services online.

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