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In-person Easter worship returns to the Basilica after COVID forced virtual Mass in 2020

DC virus restrictions limited attendance to only about a third of the total capacity that the places of worship can hold.

WASHINGTON — A year after COVID-19 forced millions to celebrate Easter virtually, many churches are now beginning to let some congregants back inside.

At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast D.C., the challenge for church leaders was balancing COVID-19 restrictions with the holiest day of the Christian calendar.d

They faced a much different challenge in 2020 because COVID-19 forced the church doors closed on Easter.

Now, as America slowly reopens, life is returning to the Basilica.

"Last year there was no one here for Easter Sunday, it was just us and our staff," said Basilica rector, Monsignor Walter Rossi. "This year there are people. Churches are dead unless they have people in them, so we're happy to have people with us today."

Still, the virus was far from forgotten.

The church can seat about 3,000 people, but Masses Sunday were capped at about a third of that to comply with social distancing requirements, according to Basilica Director of Communications Jackie Hayes.

Masks were required, custodians sanitized the church between services, and parishioners had to preregister to secure one of the limited spots.

The list filled up fast. By 9 a.m., nearly every Mass was full.

Those who didn't register had to be turned away.

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Capacity limits at the church have been steadily rising, according to Hayes.

In June of 2020, the Basilica got the green light to welcome 50 in-person worshippers per Mass.

Around Christmas, that number was bumped up to 250.

On Palm Sunday — the Sunday before Easter--the limit was increased to roughly 1,000.

For those in attendance for Easter mass, safety was on their minds.

Donna and Mike Collier both said they "feel pretty good about it right now" that they've been vaccinated.

"The basilica's been doing a great job," said Cynthia Akagbosu, a doctor at Children's National Hospital. "We went here for Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday, everyone's wearing masks, very socially distanced so we feel safe."

RELATED: Palm Sunday services held remotely during coronavirus pandemic

A return to the 'old normal' is still a long way off. But Akagbosu sees celebrating Easter Mass in person as a step in a positive direction.

"We're just really happy we have the opportunity," she said while waiting in line.

For many, it was a glimmer of optimism after a long twelve months.

"With Easter, the message is hope and new life and we're seeing that right now, especially as the vaccines are being administered," said Monsignor Rossi.

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