By Andrea Nakano

SANTA ROSA (CBS SF) — As they have watched businesses in Sonoma County reopen, officials with the Diocese of Santa Rosa have waited patiently for approval to allow parishioners to return to churches for Sunday services.

Now, they say it’s time. Bishop Robert Vasa has given pastors the green light to open churches starting on Sunday without Sonoma County health officials’ approval.

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Bishop Vasa’s order covers not only Catholic churches in Sonoma County but also parishes stretching to the Oregon border. In five of those six counties, services have been allowed. But Sonoma County has been slow to join the trend. County health officials say it’s too soon in light of a rapid increase in cases over the last 14 days.

“What is it about what we are proposing that is so risky that we say, ‘No you can’t do that?'” Bishop Vasa said.

Bishop Vasa said he was thrilled to hear Gov. Gavin Newsom announce this week that some counties can move forward with reopening churches, but that plan quickly came to a halt as Sonoma County’s Health Director Dr. Sundari Mase announced she won’t be easing any more restrictions.

“This begins to look like a restriction on my right to be spiritually present and available to my people,” Bishop Vasa said.

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Bishop Vasa says he understands the seriousness of COVID-19 and only two of the 16 churches in Sonoma County plan on reopening this Sunday. They will be following strict social distancing guidelines but Mase is concerned about the trend in the last 2 weeks.

“It’s due to the large increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations this past week,” Mase said.

Sonoma County has seen 203 new cases in the last 14 days and Mase says the hospitalizations suggest, the coronavirus is circulating among the vulnerable population.

Still, the Diocese of Santa Rosa said after nine weeks, it’s time to give back spiritually to those who wish to attend services on Sunday.

“While we are surviving, we are certainly not flourishing,” Bishop Vasa said. “Religion is a part of human flourishing and it is essential.”

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Bishop Vasa says since capacity will be limited, all the churches will continue to stream services online.