St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City ― a major pilgrimage site for the globe’s 1.3 billion Roman Catholics ― is temporarily turning away tourists to combat the spread of the new strain of coronavirus.
The world-famous basilica and its adjacent square will be closed to tourists and guided tour groups until at least April 3, the Vatican’s official news service reported Tuesday.
Only those who would like to enter the basilica to pray will be allowed in, Reuters reported. On Tuesday, Italian police were closely monitoring people entering the square, Catholic News Service reported, only permitting people who had documents proving they had to enter for work reasons or for other exceptions allowed under the Italian government’s recent decrees.
As of now, the restrictions are set to be lifted mere days before Holy Week, which starts this year with Palm Sunday on April 5.
The changes mean that the pope’s biweekly public appearances at the basilica, which generally draw thousands of Catholics and tourists, won’t be taking place as usual.
On Sunday, Pope Francis broke with decades of tradition by live-streaming his Angelus address from the library in the Apostolic Palace. The pope and his predecessors have given Sunday blessings from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square since 1954.
And instead of his typical Wednesday general audience, Francis will broadcast a sermon online, CNS reports.
Andrea Arcangeli, a health official for the Vatican City State, said the pope’s public appearances are being canceled to avoid the crowding and close contact that occurs during police security checks.
“The Holy Father’s message will reach us using the means that technology makes available to us,” Arcangeli said.
The Vatican’s closure of St. Peter’s Basilica comes days after Italy announced sweeping nationwide restrictions on travel to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the illness that results from the coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. Italians now need special permission to move around the country for work, health or extenuating circumstances. Schools and universities are closed, sports and outside events are prohibited, and bars are required to institute a 6 p.m. curfew.
The restrictions have also deeply affected religious life in the majority-Catholic country. Church baptisms, marriages and funerals are temporarily banned. People are still allowed to enter churches to pray, but they must be seated at least a pew away from fellow parishioners, The New York Times reports.
More than 9,000 people have been infected by the virus in Italy, according to the Times. Over 450 people there have died from the disease, more than in any other country except China.
Last week, the Vatican confirmed its first case of the new coronavirus. Arcangeli said the person was not an employee or resident of Vatican City State, but a job applicant who had passed through the Vatican’s health and hygiene clinic to undergo medical examinations.
St. Peter’s Basilica isn’t the only religious site to close its doors to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Saudi Arabia has temporarily banned citizens, residents and foreigners from visiting the holy city of Mecca, which typically draws millions of pilgrims every year.
In Iran, a country with a high death toll from COVID-19, authorities have halted Friday prayers in provincial capitals.
The Vatican shuttered its museums, including the Sistine Chapel, and necropolis on Sunday. Church-owned catacombs were closed last month.
The Vatican’s pharmacy and supermarket will remain open, but entry will be restricted to prevent crowds from forming, Vatican News reported.
Francis has taken the unusual step of live-streaming his daily morning Masses from Casa Santa Marta, the guest house where he lives, “to be closer to those who are ill, in quarantine or, for whatever reason, unable to leave their homes,” Vatican News reported.
In a letter published in Padua’s Il Mattino newspaper on Monday, Francis said he is praying for medical personnel, as well as for the sick, elderly, imprisoned and those who have lost a loved one, Vatican News reports. The pope wrote that “this dangerous situation” is “an opportunity to see what men and women of good will are capable of.”
“Even in these moments, God is speaking to us,” the pope wrote.