ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Annual Good Friday Faith Walk, a gathering of Alaskan Christians from an estimated 15 parishes and institutions within the Archdiocese of Anchorage, will not officially take place in 2020 in light of coronavirus-related state health mandates mostly barring gatherings.
A couple of independent groups of Alaskans, however, have formed to host their own walks. At least one of those walks, set to take place in Anchorage, was cleared by the state’s attorney general.
"We celebrate our faith, we take our faith seriously, and we're willing to make a public statement to show our faith," said David Syzdek, an Anchorage parishioner speaking on his own behalf. "Easter is the highest time of the year in the liturgical calendar. This is one way we can hold on to a piece of the public tradition without - what we felt - incurring too much risk to people."
When asked whether the Good Friday walk could be setting a precedent for people thinking of holding larger gatherings or otherwise behaving in ways that might raise concerns and questions about the health mandates, Syzdek said he hopes people will see that the group is following state guidance during the Good Friday gathering.
"I think it's a valid concern," he said, adding that another group in Alaska was petitioning to hold a Good Friday walk. "But we will be spacing out, not clumping together, not touching each other.
"It shouldn't be any more risk than people going to grocery stores," he said, "and doing their grocery shopping and checking out in line or going to any other essential businesses."
Bishop Andrew E. Bellisario, of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, wrote in a letter disseminated on April 9 that while he appreciated the invitation to an independent Good Friday walk, and the "faith-filled intentions of all who have planned these events," he had also decided he cannot participate and expects others not to do so either.
"Such an event would violate my own directives to the people of the Archdiocese in light of the Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis," he said. "It would also violate Alaska state law."
Citing State of Alaska Health Mandate 011, which bars gatherings of ten or more people and mandates social distancing of at least six feet between non-family members, Bellisario said he has carefully evaluated the effects of the mandate on the Archdiocese of Anchorage, and found that "it does not impose unreasonable restrictions on our free exercise of the Catholic Faith." Bellisario in late March directed the suspension of public masses and all other gatherings until further notice.
"Therefore, there are to be no events or gatherings until that time," he wrote. "As Catholics and as citizens we have a responsibility to protect the lives of others – especially the most vulnerable."
Syzdek, who on Easter Sunday will be participating in a mass by viewing it via live stream with his family, said he felt the bishop took prudent steps to protect the community and the faithful, but that as discussions over the mandate progressed, he and others decided to reach out to Alaska's attorney general.
"In regards to Health Mandate 011, how would it apply to us," Syzdek said, "on a public sidewalk, keeping six foot distance per the recommendation of the governor? Would we be able to do the faith walk?"
In a letter responding to that request seeking approval to hold a Good Friday walk, Attorney General Kevin G. Clarkson wrote that the state does not see an issue with the event, as long as family and non-family members are not in groups larger than 10 people; people maintain social distancing of at least six feet apart; and the cross used in the walk is sanitized before a new person is allowed to carry it. The Attorney General also said people should wear face masks and that hand sanitizer should be made available for use.
Channel 2 reached out late in the evening to representatives for Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and officials with the Department of Health and Social Services and Department of Law. Neither had responded to a request for comment as of press time.
The Archidocese posted on its website that a live streamed event will take the place of the official annual walk. "In lieu of our usual Good Friday Faith Walk," its website states, "join us on Friday for a Day of Prayer and Hope." The event, announced on April 7 by State of Alaska officials, will be live streamed on Facebook and Vimeo.
As for the unofficial Good Friday Walk in Anchorage, that will begin at 10 a.m. on Friday, April 10, on the Delaney Park Strip. Walkers will start from the corner of 10th Ave. and M St., proceed around the Park Strip, stop periodically to say a Station, and end at the Pope John Paul II memorial in Downtown Anchorage.
Author's note: This article has been edited to include a copy of a letter from State Attorney General Kevin Clarkson.
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