West Texas churches are scrambling to adapt to increasing case numbers

ALPINE — In late June, both the Rev. Edilberto “Beto” Lopez, pastor of Our Lady of Peace in Alpine, and the Rev. Joe Raj, S.J., were placed on a 14-day quarantine after Lopez tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, Raj had not been confirmed positive but was quarantined as a precautionary measure.

The positive test prompted Our Lady of Peace Church to move from phase II of reopening back to phase I. Under phase II guidelines, social distancing is encouraged, but parishioners are still allowed to attend private visits to churches. Masses during phase II are limited to 25% capacity, with no groups larger than 50 people. Additionally, confessions, baptisms, confirmations, first communions and funerals are all permitted with the same capacity and group size stipulations.

Under the return to phase I restrictions, social distancing is enforced more strictly, and churches are limited to gatherings of 10 individuals maximum. Both phases do not have guidelines for mask-wearing, but rather individuals are encouraged to abide by Governor Greg Abbott’s recently enforced statewide mask mandate, which does not require, but encourages, masks at religious services.

Since the initial announcement from the Diocese of El Paso, it has not been confirmed whether or not Raj tested positive for COVID-19. When contacted by The Big Bend Sentinel, the Our Lady of Peace church declined to comment, and the Diocese of El Paso said that their communications department was closed until further notice.

The Our Lady of Peace church did confirm that Lopez had finished his 14-day quarantine and was feeling better after having mild symptoms. They have not announced whether or not he has been retested for the virus or what his time table is for returning to the church.

On July 6, the Diocese of El Paso did announce that they would be halting their reopening efforts amid the rise in case numbers in Texas. They will continue to operate at the phase II level of reopening with the extra restrictions of no funeral or wedding masses until further notice.