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Reduced numbers in the congregation worship at a Sunday morning Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Baton Rouge.

The Diocese of Baton Rouge on Monday canceled all Masses until further notice, citing the increasing need to limit social interactions amid the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Bishop Michael Duca had previously granted a dispensation to Catholics, voiding their Sunday obligation to attend Mass if they were ill, infirm or simply concerned about the spread of disease. In his announcement Monday, he canceled all public Masses at the more than 70 church parishes and Catholic institutions it serves beginning Tuesday. The diocese covers 12 civil parishes in the capital region.

Duca's decision mirrors that from the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which earlier Monday made a similar announcement. The New Orleans area has seen the majority of the state's coronavirus cases, including at least three deaths.

"Let us pray that the Holy Spirit gives us a spirit of Hope in the Lord, who will sustain us even in these unprecedented times,” Duca said in a statement.

Churches, synagogues and other places of worship across the state and country have had to balance holding services amid a call by public health leaders to limit large gatherings to blunt the spread of the coronavirus.

Attendance at Baton Rouge this Sunday at several churches was off sharply. Still, hundreds of people attended.

John Sanford, a parishioner at St. George Catholic Church, said he was surprised by the decision but understands the temporary disruption is intended to curb the virus' spread. His church typically sees gatherings of about 1,000 people, though fewer people had attended last Sunday.

"If that's what they feel they need to do to stop the spread, we have to make the sacrifice," said Sanford, 60, of Baton Rouge. "I just keep praying for a safe recovery and hope things get back to normal."

Duca had said in an interview Sunday that Mass always went on despite wars, disasters and other hardships, but that the threat of the global coronavirus outbreak is different.

"We have a disease that comes from an individual, sometimes not even knowing it, and bring it into the community," he said.

Several churches within the diocese had already offered live streaming services online. St. George notified parishioners it would broadcast Mass at 10 a.m. each day on its YouTube channel.

State health officials have reported a swell in new cases that this weekend that exceeded 100 people sickened by the respiratory illness known officially as COVID-19. No cases have been reported in Baton Rouge as of late Monday, though one had been confirmed in Ascension Parish.

State leaders have urged older adults and those with underlying health conditions to avoid crowds because the coronavirus death rate is greatest among these groups.

Gov. John Bel Edwards had initially banned gatherings with more than 500 people, which included churches and houses of worship. He intensified those restrictions Monday to groups of 50 people while also ordering bars, movie theaters and casinos shut down and for restaurants switch to take-out and delivery only.

President Trump suggested Monday that crowds be limited to 10.

State health officials have said those measures are to avoid a huge spike in the number of cases that could quickly overwhelm hospitals.

"We are tough. We are resilient. We will get past this but only because we’re going to take it seriously now," the governor said during a Monday news conference.


Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad