Grotto mass
Rev. Abelardo Vasquez leads mass in the grotto and parking lot behind St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, in Bridgeport, Conn. May 21, 2020.

Gov. Ned Lamont on Friday eased restrictions for social and religious gatherings, allowing faith leaders to bring in as many as 100 worshipers for a service, while private gatherings can now host 10 people inside and 25 outside, if they maintain social-distancing protocols.

The changes take effect Monday, along with the reopening of hair salons and barbershops.

Appearing with a dozen religious leaders from throughout the state in front of the Capitol, Lamont said major reductions in the hospitalization rate and other public health metrics prompted him to revise a previous executive order that limited private gatherings to five.

“I do feel very strongly that we’ve got to be very careful, yet practical, in terms of letting people begin to get back to a life that’s different but more normal,” Lamont said.

Religious centers will be allowed to fill 25 percent of their capacity, or 100 worshipers, whichever is lower. As many as 150 worshipers can meet outdoors, according to the executive order released around 8 p.m. Friday.

The state Department of Public Health on Friday reported 42 additional deaths in the coronavirus pandemic, bringing the total fatalities to 3,826.

But a net reduction of 71 patients brought statewide hospitalizations to 577, the lowest since 517 people were hospitalized on March 30 and far below the peak of 1,972 on April 22.

“We had probably one of our largest drops in hospitalization we’ve seen in months,” Lamont said. In fact, there was also a net 71-bed decline in hospitalizations as recently as May 21.

“We’re 75 percent off our peak now,” Lamont said. “So, it’s a long way of saying the metrics continue in the right direction, thanks to what each and every one of you is doing.”

The governor admitted that gauging health metrics while trying to pull the state economy out of a sharp decline is challenging.

“It’s an art as well as a science,” he said, stressing that the five-person limit had been established to make it easier to track and trace infections.

“And you can nitpick it to death and say why this as opposed to that,” Lamont said. “Outside is safer than inside. Younger are much less likely to suffer complications than older. Small groups and small gatherings are safer than large groups and large gatherings. And alcohol is not great in any of these contexts. We also want guidance that’s reasonable and enforceable and that people believe in.”

The governor stressed the need to continue social distancing, warning that a revived pandemic in South Korea has resulted in again closing schools there, while in this country, COVID-19 has been infecting more and more people in Southern states and along the Gulf coast that have been reluctant to close for the pandemic.

The clergy members praised Lamont for listening to members of the faith community who had asked for relief on the orders that have essentially closed houses of worship for the last 10 weeks.

“We’re easing the restrictions as long as people follow protocols,” said Lamont. “This virus is not behind us. I do feel strongly that we have to be very careful, and yet practical in letting people get back to a life that’s different, but more-normal.”

That means 6-foot distancing, face masks and hand washing.

The Rev. Lindsay E. Curtis, pastor of the Grace Baptist Church in Norwalk, said the new guidelines show caring for congregants. “One of the things I have always been concerned about is folks rushing back into the church and not realizing that people in the church are really the church,” he said. “So as we take our time to go back in, not rushing, not causing virus and disease to spread, but to do it right, we’ll get back to perhaps what was, but realizing that what was, shall never be again.”

Bishop Ian T. Douglas of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, who leads 150,000 congregants, said that despite the easing, 155 parishes will remain closed until Phase 2 of the state’s reopening, around June 20.

“We appreciate these new guidelines, but we will be maintaining that our buildings remain closed through the rest of Phase 1,” Douglas said.

kdixon@ctpost.com Twitter: @KenDixonCT